What a Coach Should Be: Passionate About Coaching

One of the most poignant parts of my discussion last week with Dani Bostick came around the flip-side of policy engagements like the MAAPP. At the same time we struggle to define what is not acceptable behavior for a coach, we need to define what a coach should be! I’m all for some hard boundaries on what coaches shouldn’t do, but we need a positive direction too.

So in that vein, I’m going to do a little blog series about that. Lets start the conversation around what a coach should be. This is by no means a definitive edition, but it could end up with something more final. I want to start with a topic that I think has more nuance than it is often presented as. In fact, i toyed around the title of this several times.

First I went with “Happy to be coaching”, before deciding that I didn’t like the connotation of that. As someone with one foot in the “happiest country in the world” (Denmark), I can tell you that it does not play out the way many would guess. Few if any Danish people are striding around town with broad smiles on their face.

Then I put “Passionate About the Sport” before canning that as well. I can think of many people, including myself at one point, who were passionate about the sport but not really ready to be a good coach. You can be a huge fan of the sport of swimming and not have a lot to offer in the coaching department.

To me, these posts should also serve as my official advice to anyone looking for a way to positive evaluate a coach for their kid or themselves.

So finally I settled on the actually embodying passion for coaching. What does that mean? Well, let me take a stab:

  1. You Enjoy Teaching the Skills of the Sport: Most sports, swimming included, depend quite heavily on your skills and the fitness to apply those skills. Coaches should enjoy teaching a turn, a start, how to push off a wall and how to move your body to do the various strokes. I always look out for coaches who make teaching the skills a part of every practice, and don’t treat it as a “if we have time” proposition.

  2. You Foster Independence: I think central to a passion for coaching is wanting to build autonomy in those you coach. I tell the people I coach that my goal is work myself out of a job. Look for a coach that offers athletes opportunity to self-direct their own training, and make choices. Look, none of us get to be completely “free” in our choices, nor should we be. But kids should be learning to choose between multiple good options and direct some of their own training from the second they set foot on a pool deck.

  3. You enjoy learning: Take it from someone that does not have a traditional “love” of learning, this is a very important skill. A coach who is interested to learn about the people they coach is incredibly important. A coach who wants to learn from other coaches, or from the parents of kids they coach is even better. A coach who is actively engaged with improving their knowledge about the sport.

  4. You have a strong “why”: A great question to ask a coach is why they coach. Their answer is going to tell you a lot about their motivation for starting and continuing. Now, you may not get an in depth answer at first prompting, especially if they barely know you. But if you show enough honest interest, you can really get to the bottom of them. Look for coaches whose “why” goes well beyond competitive results, or their achievements as an athlete. Look for someone who finds meaning in sport beyond sport and can communicate that.

When I was fourteen year old, I really connected with a coach for the first time in my life. I had been swimming for four years. Never in my life would I have predicted what a huge difference it made to have a good coach to go see at the pool every day.

For the first time I was EAGER to go to practice, and work my butt off. I made more friends at the pool. I started doing better in school. I was happy. Coaching is all too often a job that is not valued well in terms of material compensation. But it is extremely meaningful work, and defining what it should be is very important even as we set tough boundaries on what it shouldn’t.