The predominate model in swimming team swimming. Although some swimmers receive individual instruction, especially at the higher levels, most athletes train on a team where they are just one out of a group with a coach.
The coach of this group must make a decision on how they will handle meeting the individual demands with the group setting. Training programs, communication, rules and expectations all need to addressed with the group. In many situations, there is one coach for ten or even twenty or thirty swimmers.
When a coach tries to individualize within this setting, they need to be sensitive to any implication that they are "playing favorites". While some coaches are unabashed in declaring that they do in fact "play favorites" and see themselves as running a meritocracy, this is far from an ideal team environment.
What can a coach do to meet the needs of the individuals and make it work in a group setting? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Bring in outside help to address individual needs- One way a lead coach can often find themselves in trouble is when they try to be all things to all swimmers. Oftentimes there are athletes with specific needs that can be addressed by people other than the head coach, allowing the head coach to preserve some neutrality in the team environment.
For example, an athlete may need help with pre-race anxiety, and may talk away from the pool with a specialized coach. Likewise, there may be an area of technical instruction that another coach can provide video feedback on while the rest of the practices flows uninterrupted.
2. Design individualized programs of equal value- One way to help address the training needs of a diverse group is to simply come up with many different training programs as you have space for. Obviously in many situations swimmers will still need to be grouped, due to pools pace demands.
The key is making programs of equal value, so that all swimmers will feel they are getting the best possible program. They will be more likely to feel positive about their place in the group and interact better with each other, as opposed to being forced into an ill-fitting group training program.
3. A holistic view of athletes can mean more "good" ones- One of the dangers of having extremely strict and authoritarian rules to maintain "good order" in a group setting is that it can fail to take into account the various contributions of athletes on your team.
In one group I coached, there was an athlete who worked consistently very hard, holding steady paces on race series without hardly any drop-off. Another athlete was prone to pushing himself too hard early on, taking a risk on holding a faster pace. This meant that sometimes he fizzled out.
Both were "hard workers" although neither agreed with the other's definition of hard work. As a coach, I learned to value both of them and adjust my coaching to make the most out of the approach they took to "working hard".
4. Take An Interest in The Entire Life of the Athlete- Athletes perform better when they feel truly seen by their coaches as people. This means forming a relationship with them that goes beyond their sporting interest.
Coaches also have a tremendous opportunity to learn about all sorts of things outside of sport through their athletes and these relationships. Building a relationship that is not just based on swimming will mean a stronger connection when the hardest moments come.
I started my career coaching groups, and I instantly saw that wherever I was, swimmers needed individualized attention. Now I coach individuals, and I believe that working with a coach individually can really enhance both that individual and the team they are on.