There are a number of ways to improve your swim coach, of which telling them or other people how dissatisfied you are with them is not particularly effective. Here’s one way that can really juice up the improvement curve on your coach: pay them more.
Over the weekend, the news came out from back in Denmark. Sigma, the perennial "best" or almost best club in the country, was breaking up into two. Why? Well, put simply, because the (parent) boards of both teams simply couldn't get along.
In America, the conventional wisdom is that coach run/owned teams are a better competitive model than board run teams. It's true that many coaches prefer this model, especially because of the volatile nature of board run clubs. The situation is much the same in Denmark, where not one of the major Copenhagen area clubs has the same head coach that they had when I moved there a little over four years ago.
But coach run teams have their own problems too. I'm personally uncomfortable with the lack of oversight that many coach run programs exhibit. Coaches need checks and balances just like anyone else, and they need productive ones.
Enter the board. Here's the problem with almost any board I've ever heard of in swimming: It is made up mostly of parents of swimmers on the team. The inherent conflict of interest is the root of most problems on teams with boards. It's an impossible expectation to put on parents to set aside the interest of their own child or children when serving as a volunteer leader for a team.
I feel for the parents who serve on team boards. Their hearts are in the right place, and often times they are filling a role that no one else will even step up and do.
So who should serve on the board? There is actually a more important question to answer first. How do we get people other than parents interested in serving on the boards of club swimming teams? I don't pretend to have all the answers to how to do so.
A good start would mean identifying people with strengths outside of the the typical "parent" group who would be able to contribute something to the board. They could be local business people, former athletes, educators. Then ask them some questions: what would it take to get them interested in serving on the board? What would they value in return for contributing to running a team?
I can promise this: the process alone of attracting new talent outside of parents to team boards would give you a huge competitive advantage.
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Let me preface everything I'm about to say with this: I do not know Ray Looze. My impression of him is mainly formed from pool deck gossip and fifteen or so years of following the Indiana University Swimming and Diving team from afar.
I started nerding out about Indiana in the early 2000s, when a star of my local club scene went to swim there. It was an eye opener for me. I felt like a real country bumpkin watching our local hero miss the conference team and compete in a last chance meet instead. Furthermore, I recall them having a guy (named Murph Halasz, I think) who went 1:46 in the 200 fly, and that was not fast enough to qualify for NCAAs.
I couldn't believe it. It was my first introduction into how crazy fast NCAA swimming is and was. In the subsequent years, Indiana remained a fascinating program for me. I remember how impossibly fast Colin Russell seemed, and then the drama that ensued when Colin Russell got ushered out of NCAA swimming.
The Russell saga established Looze' reputation as someone who pushed the boundaries. Indiana remained an always solid national presence, often derided by other coaches for exceptional recruiting classes and somewhat less exceptional results.
As I wrote about earlier, all of that changed when Looze shocked the college swimming world by managing to recruit former heated rival Dennis Dale over to his staff a few years ago. Now he's made two stunning pickups.
The first was Coley Stickels, the man who, in my humble opinion, has the most creative workouts in the country. Stickels has cut a swath through various club coaching jobs over the last decade, and success has always followed. Although, Stickels has a reputation for being even more of a loose cannon than Looze. That's where the mad scientist part comes in.
He followed that dagger by pulling in Mark Hill, formerly of Michigan and currently at Old Dominion Aquatic Club (and his own business Flow Swimming). Hill played an instrumental role in Michigan's 2013 National Title, and has spent the last year disrupting the swim clinic game. Hill will also help IU's already strong recruiting with his impossible-to-not-likeability.
While NC State is everyone's favorite ascendent team right now, Indiana is now staking their claim. They've built a coaching staff that can put them in contention for a National title very soon, even if Eddie Reese doesn't retire.
Want advice on how to put your coaching staff together for a competitive advantage? Looking for a college job and want someone to give you an edge? Write me.
"And that's why English is the official language of America...". I was doing my thing- staring right through my seventh grade history teacher as she droned.
"There is no official language in America!" I blurted out, with embarrassed blood rushing to my face. What was I doing?
"Chris, please don't interrupt, and besides, as I said, English is the official language of the United States of America".
I shook my head. The next day, when she admitted she checked and that, in fact, America had no official language, she didn't say I was right. Rather, she reminded all my classmates how rude it was for me to interrupt her while she was speaking.
That was the day I realized that anyone could be very wrong about something very basic, and would insist that they were right anyway.
But simply beating them over the head with the fact that they were wrong was not very effective. In fact, if the power relationship was imbalanced, it often made things worse for you. That's when I learned another way, a softer way of getting through.
A "Soft" Coach
As a coach, I've never been known for anger, or yelling, or for having the most torturous practices. In a meeting I will often speak far fewer words than whoever I'm talking to. I'm pretty proud of that.
I started my career at the University of Pennsylvania and was immediately thrust into a chaotic environment. Swimmers often got into the water late, sometimes not at all. One of my fellow assistant coaches showed up constantly late to morning practice.
Coaching there was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I learned that, if you made an engaging practice, swimmers were more likely to get in on time for it. I learned that swimmers were far more motivated by somebody that saw the best in them than somebody they feared.
I learned that drumming up the importance of a swim meet hurt athletes performance more than it helped. Much better to give a supportive hug and remind athletes every day that you care about them regardless of their swimming results.
I learned that the less punitive force you had to put on people to get them do what "needed to be done", the better. Nobody likes being backed into a corner, they like choosing their own adventure.
Taking Your Own Medicine
I've never understood the impulse in coaching: "do as I say, not as I do".
Why do we call young swimmers "student-athletes". Because we want to emphasize that they have a more important mission (education) than sport, even if sport is it's own education. Why then, do we just call coaches "coach"?
Don't coaches have a greater mission? Aren't I a Parent-Coach? Why do so many coaches tell athletes that they are doing sports for something bigger than sports, all while living a life so focused on sports?
"That's Not the Way It is"
When I hear one of my peers or elders giving all sorts of weird, pseudo-masculine advice on coaching, all because that's the "way it is", I'm back in my seventh grade classroom.
But instead of blurting out an interruption, I listen. What are they really saying?
"I don't know any better ways to do it, this is what I was taught".
So instead I try to show them another way. I don't expect them to take me on my word, but on the results. I'm still working on it.
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Post-men's NCAA, the focus is rightly on Texas' dominant victory and the possibility that Eddie Reese is immortal and may go on forever. There were several other NCAA teams that saw their fate dramatically change this year with a common thread.
Each of the programs I'm about to describe added a coach to their staff that was at, near or past retirement age but had success as a head coach. I guarantee these programs are not using these coaches like traditional "assistants". Instead, they are leveraging the strengths of these coaches to dramatically improve the success of their teams.
Mark Bernardino joined the University of South Carolina in 2014 after a long, dominant ACC run at Virginia. Bernardino's ACC championship teams were known for their bruising distance success. Not shockingly, South Carolina saw a significant uptick in distance performance in the years following Bernardino's move to Columbia.
This year at Men's NCAAs, the Gamecocks scored 54 points between the 500 and 1650 freestyle. That could have landed them a 21st place finish at the meet all by itself. Instead it was the driving force behind South Carolina's 15th place finish at the meet. Head Coach McGee Moody has to be thrilled with the results of his hire.
On the other end of the spectrum, Indiana managed to add the former head coach of one of their chief conference rivals, Dennis Dale, also in 2014. Dale won seven Big Ten titles at Minnesota, many on the basis of being able to mold fast sprinters from seemingly out of nowhere and produce fast relays.
Sprinting was a weakness of the Hoosier program before Dale's arrival, and now it has become a big strength. This past weekend they put a 200 and 400 freestyle relay in the A-final, and individually got big scoring swims from Blake Pieroni and Vini Lanza.
A coach once told me that Ray Looze and Dale were bitter rivals, but somehow Looze found a way to make peace, and the results was that Indiana is enjoying huge success. They finished 7th this year at Men's NCAAs and 8th at the Women's meet.
Often head coaches can start a hiring process with a role in mind, then work to fit that role. McGee Moody and Looze found a coach that would make their team better and created a role around that. As we enter another hiring season, those with jobs on offer would be wise to follow suit.
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I cringe whenever someone uses the phrase "team building activities". Not because there isn't some value to setting aside a specific time and place for working on being a team. In fact, far from it. I cringe because team building is an everyday, every practice activity.
Coaches talk a lot about creating an "environment" for success. When you are a leader on a team, the bulk of team building is what kind of environment you create for others. You need to create an environment where a diverse set of personalities come together for a unified cause.
Sounds easy right? But many teams struggle with building a cohesive unit. One area that frequently causes conflict is the athletes perception of team values.
Let me give an example. "Work hard" is one of the most obvious values a team can have. But what does it mean? Unless the coach communicates and leads the way, athletes will fill the space with their own interpretation of hard work.
I once had two swimmers in my group that didn't get along. Both thought the other wasn't "working hard".
One swimmer was consistent- never late, always the first in the water, always repeating times like a metronome through pace sets. He attended morning practices (doubles) no matter what. He was always serious at practice- like an adult showing up to work. Let's call him Mr. Consistency.
The other was a wild card. He got into the water last- but then finished warmup before half his teammates. When it was time to give a "max" effort, no one was better. He laid everything on the line, and often paid for it later in practice. He could never gauge his own effort- his paces were inconsistent. If something was off, he was sick or something hurt, he took a more cautious approach and sometimes missed training. Let's call him Mr. Wild
As a coach, I knew that both swimmers were working hard. They both fit into what I valued as a coach. Were they perfect? Of course not. I wished Mr. Consistency would take a day off once in a while- he often concealed when he was sick knowing that I would send him away from training. I wish that Mr. Wild would learn to pace himself a bit better so he wasn't so useless for parts of training.
One of the things I would say to bring these two swimmers together was to remind them of something that swim coaches often say to each other but forget on their own teams. "There are many ways up the mountain". Coaches can get trapped by their own "philosophy" about "how things should be done" and fail to include athletes who are actually embodying their values, just using a somewhat different looking process.
Instead of valuing "hard work", we valued self-improvement. Were the swimmers doing what they needed to do to get better? In this case, both were, so much so that both would go on to be NCAA Division 1 Championship qualifiers. Eventually they learned that even though they could poke holes in each others approach, they both had a lot to learn from one another.
This is just one example, there are many more situations where you can be inclusive with your values as a leader without compromising high standards. If you do so, you will create an environment where a diverse group of personalities can co-exist and thrive, making you look very good as a leader.
Frank Busch retirement was much like his career as national team director. He left quietly, saying the right things, with a solid claim to outstanding results during his tenure at the top of American's swimming machine.
While Busch had his critics, his tenure was far less controversial than his predecessor, Mark Schubert, by a mile. Whereas Schubert wielded a heavy hand as National Team Director, Busch was far more subdued. He tapped into the essential truth of leading USA Swimming- that our athletes and coaches could have great success if there was far less top-down meddling in their lives.
It's easy to forget now, but Busch stepped into a messy situation when he took the job in 2011. He had to unravel the "Centers of Excellence" a Schubert brainchild that was an abject failure. He had to face the angry mob of coaches that saw the National Team Director position as an overpaid hindrance to getting where they wanted to go.
Busch was able to calm fears through his more understated approach, but he also made a lot of empty promises along the way. Banking on his own credibility within the coaching community, he assured the anxious masses that USA Swimming would close the technology gap that had emerged between its sorry website and the internet around it.
That promise was never realized, but should not have been surprising given the rumor that Busch didn't even read his own e-mail as head coach of the University of Arizona. USA Swimming's website and knowledge sharing platforms remain woefully behind the times, with their only positive development coming from their partnership with GoSwim to bring technical video to their site.
Still others found it curious that a man who's career was so largely built on college success would be put in charge of an apparatus that mostly dealt with club swimming. I've always found this argument a bit silly, also given that Busch did have a history as a club coach, but the enmity between club and college swimming coaches is real.
The next National Team Director will have tough shoes to fill. Not only will they need to match Busch' coaching chops, but also will face criticism if there is any drop in USA Swimming's world domination.
The list of candidates floating around also exposes the fact that women and minorities are woefully under-represented at the highest level of USA Swimming. If the new director is a middle aged white male, as is likely, here's hoping that they will do more in their tenure to address this intractable problem.