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Know Enough

As coaches, particularly in the collegiate and professional setting, we are typically working as part of a team that supports the performance of swimmer. Depending on our position, we may be leading that group or serving in an auxiliary role. While it is tempting to focus on our immediate areas of responsibility, there is real value in expanding our skillset and working knowledge beyond what is strictly required by our job.

The idea of a well-rounded knowledge base and perspective has been explored on this site previously in the context of facilitating expertise in personal coaching. In this post, I’d like to explore how the development of a well-rounded perspective enhances your interaction with team members who are providing services from a separate field.

The information and coaching that these individuals provide your swimmers can make a difference in how they perform. If this wasn’t the case, their skills would not be utilized. With a better understanding about the respective disciplines that provide services to your team, these services can become more effective these services will be.

The value in developing a basic, and even beyond basic, level of working knowledge is that it allows for better interaction with colleagues who are working with swimmers on a daily basis. Expertise in a given field is not required. What is needed is enough knowledge and expertise to recognize the expertise of others, better inform others of what the swimmers require, follow their rationale, and make informed decisions based upon their input.

Below is an exploration of the reasons that coaches would be well served to expand their specific knowledge base and skill set beyond what their standard coaching role requires, if they wish to optimize performance. For coaches without any assistance who are responsible for the entire performance development process, they are simply left without a choice. They must become well-versed in all areas of performance if they aim to help their swimmers realize their potential.

Better Implement Performance Advice. The more coaches understand what their co-workers are trying to accomplish, the better they will be able to implement their advice. As coaches, we are constantly working in fluid environments. On many occasions we have to adjust and implement the intention of what was suggested, as opposed the literal suggestion. Without the knowledge and understanding of what is being suggested, coaches may be unable to make the critical adjustments that make the difference.

Further, coaches may need to interpret how a general intention applies to a specific context. As swimming coaches are the experts on swimming, we must be able to understand how apply general concepts from a given field to swimming, particularly our specific context. Rather than expecting others to possess this skill, it is up to us to bridge the gap.

One of the biggest values in having a wide working knowledge of various fields is the awareness of when you are receiving poor advice. Without a filter, coaches are at risk for using ideas that can impair health, performance, or both.

Better Inform Colleagues. The more you understand the perspective of someone who works in another discipline, the better you can provide information in a context they will understand and appreciate it. Every field has its own language used to refer to difference experiences, terms, and observations. The more coaches can speak the language of their colleagues, the more they can provide information in terms that are best understood by others, the more likely that information will be used accurately and effectively.

Beyond providing better information about specific situations, when coaches understand others’ expertise, they can help to explain the sport of swimming in theirterms, as opposed to the perspective of a swim coach. This will greatly help the assimilation of the information and allow these staff members to make an impact much sooner and more effectively.

Facilitate Collaboration. The more a coach can understand and appreciate the field of a co-worker, the more opportunity there is for collaboration and the creation of competitive advantages that otherwise would not exist. When coaches are able to find common language and common understanding with other staff members, they are able to use the expertise of all parties to create solutions and opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable when relying on the skillset of one individual. This process is optimized when all groups understand where everyone else is coming from, and the way they address their work.

Get the Right People on Board. The more a coach understands a given field, the more able they will be able to recognize expertise in others. This recognition can help coaches appreciate whether the individuals helping their team are a good fit for what the team needs. Whether it is the hiring process, or the firing process as necessary, the ability to recognize skill will be dependent on a familiarity with the field in question.

In all professions, there are individuals who are more and less skilled at their jobs. To recognize a skilled practitioner, there must be a basic understanding of what that individual does, or should do. If we can’t recognize skill, we won’t be able to recognize a lack of it until enough problems emerge that it’s impossible to miss. By that point, the damage is done.

It’s easy to say that person X is awesome when we don’t know any better. Depending on the situation, an understanding of the respective field can help coaches determine whether a given individual is a good fit for a working relationship. When options exist, the ability to understand a staff member’s approach will help determine if that is a good fit for your program.

Specific Fields

With these concepts in mind, below are specific areas where swim coaches often use specialized services that involve skillsets beyond those typically acquired by swim coaches. These services can make a dramatic difference in performance, particularly when there is mutual understanding between the individuals involved.

Strength and Conditioning. As swim coaches, we often delegate all strength training to another coach who is not working with swimmers at the pool on daily basis. This is true in many clubs and is almost always true in the collegiate setting. While it’s tempting to simply give up total control to another individual, this can be problematic. In the worst case, you may be working with an individual who has no appreciation of or interest in the needs of your swimmers.

With a basic understanding of effective strength training approaches, coaches can develop a filter to interpret the information that a strength specialist is providing. A sound knowledge base can also help coaches communicate what they are looking for, beyond ‘I want kids to be strong’. A larger issue is balancing the workloads between the two distinct environments. There needs to be communication about when loads are going to be heavy or light in one area (i.e. weight room), and how that compares to the loading in another area (i.e. pool). Over time, incongruent loads will harm performance and create injuries.

Of course, the situation changes completely when there is no strength coach to be utilized. At that point, coaches better be informed, or they will be missing out on potential performance improvements due to sloppy performance or simply not performing strength training at all. Even worse, a misguided program can expose swimmers to increase risk of injury.

Beyond the benefits of more fruitful interactions with co-workers and designing more effective land-based program, learning more about the practices of strength and conditioning coaches can inform coaches about alternative approaches to training.

Relatively speaking, most training ideas in the swimming community revolve around strategies to improve endurance. In contrast, strength and conditioning training strategies are typically designed to enhance speed and power. While the ideas may not directly transfer, it can be very useful for stimulating thought about how speed and power can be better developed in the pool.

Nutrition. As with all aspects of performance, performance nutrition is a highly individualized field where results can depend on individualized nutritional interventions. Coaches need to watch for situations were generic advice is being applied to swimmers in general and specific individuals in particular. The more coaches can appreciate the different approaches to nutrition, as well as the underlying principles, they are less likely to use nutritional advice that is inappropriate.

Generic sports nutrition advice is not always optimal, and in many cases, can be counterproductive when considering the goals of individual swimmers. The nutritional needs of a sprinter performing low volume training will be very different from a distance swimmer performing 3 times the training volume. Not all swimmers will need the same general approach, and all swimmers will need specific interventions based upon lifestyle factors. Knowledgeable coaches can perceive whether these needs are being addressed.

Educated coaches can help sports nutrition tailor their approaches by providing the necessary information nutritionist need. What are specific goals of a given training cycle? How does your training program and style alter the nutritional needs of swimmers in general, and specific individuals? Based upon specific scholastic demands, what are the specific challenges swimmers face? When coaches understand the factors that influence nutritional needs, they can help guide nutritionists in exploring the specific demands of swimming, as well as nuances each individual situation presents.

Psychology. The mind runs the show. As with all professions, there are more and less skilled practitioners. If a sports psychologist is working the team you coach, you better understand what that individual is communicating to your team, and if those messages are conducive to health and performance. If there is a disconnect between the value systems of a coach and a psychologist, there is trouble down the road.

Further, there is a very real possibility that a sports psychologist could undermine your relationship with the swimmers you coach, even if it is inadvertent. If that happens, you are in trouble. Be able to understand the values a psychologist has, and facilitating an open dialogue about what is being discussed, will prevent potential problems from being realized.

The more a coach is aware of the tools sports psychology can provide, the more they can seek out individuals who are best able to provide those tools. It can also spur conversations about how to best integrate these tools into the training environment, where each tool must be developed for the skillsets to be most relevant to performance. Ultimately, psychology must be learned in the training and competitive environment. Coaches and sport psychologists will work best together when they are able to join their respective worlds. This is more easily accomplished when both individuals are aware of their respective skillsets.

Athletic Training. Unfortunately, swimmers will get injured. Once that happens, they’re going to be interacting with medical staff. The dialogue you have with medical staff will determine the outcomes and the options you have to train an injured swimmer. If the staff doesn’t trust you, they won’t give you much leeway in terms of the nature and magnitude of the loading you prescribe to an injured swimmer. The more a coach can understand their perspective, appreciate their goals, and speak their language, the more trust will be built. With trust comes a lot more freedom to find ways to keep the training process moving forward

There are ALWAYS training options, regardless of the injury. Whether you have access to these options will be determined by the relationship you have with the medical staff, and the trust that they have in your ability to understand their priority to keep swimmers healthy.

More simply, if a medical staff member is operating from a paradigm that is not conducive to high performance, you are going to run into problems. They simply will not understand what is required to accomplish the swimmers’ goals, and they will be extremely conservative. Understanding the profession, and what to look for when interviewing candidates, will help eliminate the possibility that a coach finds themselves in this situation.


The more coaches are aware of the perspectives, challenges, and language of the various individuals that provide specific expertise, the more effective the contributions of these individuals will be. Coaches do not need to be experts. They need enough knowledge and understanding to help the experts do their job well. The ability to frame conversations from a colleague’s viewpoint will allow coaches to more effectively communicate with these individuals. Coaches will also be able to better understand and implement the suggestions that these experts provide. A better working relationship will facilitate the development of trust, which further enhances the strength of the relationship.

The success of any team will be dependent on the skillsets of the individuals who comprise the team. By possessing a basic understanding of a given field, coaches will be better able to identify what skillsets they are looking for in co-workers. They’ll know what’s important and what to look for.

As teams grow in sizes, coaches must develop the ability to effectively manage the contribution of team members. By possessing an understanding of what each team member does, and how they do it, coaches will be best able to ensure that each team member is optimally contributing to the forward progress of the team.


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