What A Coach Should Be: Leader By Example

This is the second in a series that started in June 2019. As we discuss what boundaries should be set on coaching behavior, it’s also useful to have a positive direction to move in. For the first in this series go here.

I had a coach once that demanded we call him Coach (Last name). When asked why, his reasoning was simple. He believed it was a respectful way to address him.

Personally, I’ve never insisted on such, even though we see the same thing in pretty much all schools. Still, I would say the majority of people I have coached have addressed me in one of two ways, either “coach” or “sir”. The first one is obvious, but why the second?

Well, a few years into coaching I decided to flip the above scenario on its head. Instead of demanding that people I coached address me in one particular way, I started to sprinkle it the other direction. I called people “sir” or “ma’am” or “ms”. Always with my tongue firmly in my cheek.

The kids picked it up pretty naturally, and pretty soon I was getting called “sir” all the time.

Leading by example is a concept with 100% approval but lots of murkiness when it comes down to actually defining it. So I’m going to try to. When it comes to coaching, you’re never going to do 100% of the stuff that you ask your athletes to do, and it would be dumb to do so. So you can’t exactly “lead by example” by simply modeling all the tasks you assign.

You can, however, model behavior and decision-making in the types of situations that your athletes will face on a daily basis. They will see and judge your behavior and decision making far more than you likely give them credit for. You will also see some of your own greatest vulnerabilities manifest in the people you coach.

Here are a few categories where I believe it is critically important to lead by example:

  1. Emotional Regulation- As a coach, emotional regulation is a headline skill that you want to develop for yourself and see in your athletes. Often misunderstood as “controlling” your emotions, it is actually about responding to your emotions. Modeling how to respond to your negative emotions, be it anger, sadness or fear in a way that both allows you to express and deal with those emotions without “acting out” on those around you is crucial. On the flip side, I’ve struggled myself with capitalizing on positive emotions, often feeling most uncomfortable when things are going well. When I coached in Denmark, I took my coaches on a retreat to plan for the year. We ended up discussing for an hour how much our athletes collectively worried about competition. At that moment, I knew one of the biggest problems was how worried I was about competitive results.

  2. Work/Life Balance- Many athletes, especially elite athletes, struggle to find the balance between outworking their competition and leading a healthy life. Coaches face the same struggle. The higher level I was coaching, the more I felt pulled in two directions between my life outside of work and the competition I was engaged in at work. But if we truly want our athletes to lead whole lives and grow up to be great people, they need to see us doing the same. You don’t need to regale them with stories of your time away from the pool, but having the athletes know that you have interests outside of coaching, things that you do for yourself sends a powerful message that they should do the same.

  3. Relationships- These of course are not distinct categories. Relationships are the key to true emotional regulation, likewise an important part of work/life balance. As a coach you have a really unique opportunity to model good relationships for the people you coach. Many may come from abusive pasts whether in sport or at home, and this can warp their sense of a healthy relationship. Showing care for other people in your life, talking about it openly and modeling respectful boundaries can be hugely influential.

  4. Self-reflective- A key part of working on something and improving is the ability to be self-reflective. I think many worry that if they do some of this self-reflection out in the open, it will be perceived as weakness to those they coach. I disagree. It took me ten years, but I finally noticed that coaches often end up “frustrated” with athletes that mirror some of their own quirks as an athlete. I was a mouthy back-talker as an athlete, and found myself perpetually vexed by kids who ‘didn’t listen”. I knew one coach whose youth coaches deemed “lazy” that was always frustrated by his own athletes lack of determination. If you are secure enough to reflect on yourself, it can actually be a starting point for good empathy with the most “frustrating” athletes you coach.

  5. Showing Up- So obvious that I almost left it out. Want to set an expectation that people arrive and are ready to go by a certain time? If you want consistency out of those you coach, you have to be the most consistent person on the team. Consistently on time, there when you say you are, following through on what you said you would do. As simple as that, sort of.

As I said above, I once spent an hour discussing how “worried” athletes were on the team I led. Although I made improvements even during that time, I didn’t make the big leap in progress for helping people I coached until I actually started working on solutions for my own anxiety.

Leading by example is about more than just specific actions, and far more about modeling (and explaining) the complex decision-making process you use as a coach while being open to improvement.

Should We Amputate the Olympics?

Last week, the extremely confusing news that Russia would be banned (kind of, sort of, ok maybe not really banned but we're going to put it in the headlines as banned) from the Winter Olympics broke.

There were a lot of people applauding the decision, including me. Like many of those people, I saw the excellent documentary Icarus . Included in that documentary was a man from the inside of the Russian system telling a lot of us what we already knew: that Russia had state sponsored doping.

I'll admit, I haven't always been with the anti-doping crusaders. I've mocked John Leonard, Craig Lord and others for what I saw as their hysterical takes on doping, specifically as it affects the sport we care about most, swimming.

I'm having Craig Lord on a podcast later this week to discuss this very ban (and hopefully many other things) and what it means.

But for now, I'm left with an incredibly unsettling feeling. Rather than feel comforted by the news out of the IOC, I'm wondering if the Olympics, and how strongly swimming is tied to it, are a recipe for disaster.

It's crazy to say that swimming doesn't need the Olympics. The sport swells to its highest crescendo every four years on the backs of those rings. But there are some serious cracks in the Olympic foundation. 

For one, the IOC and other governing bodies (our lovely FINA, for instance) haven't stood up well against a modern internet age level of scrutiny. So it's hard to credit the IOC for making such an obvious decision. How much more evidence did they need?

I think it's a legitimate question whether swimming should continue to pin its survival to an event organized by crooked plutocrats every four years. With swimmers trying to formalize professional competitive swimming, should we move to abandon ship as a sport before the decision is made for us?

What would we do if suddenly there was no Olympics every four years.? How would we fill that gaping hole? The Winter Olympics is starting to look like a doubtful exercise. How far behind will the summer rendition be?

Would that even work, or given that the corruptive rot extends to FINA as well as NOCs (National Organizing Committees), where do we start running into an organization worth saving in the sport of swimming? 

It's scary to imagine a world without the current organizations that we have, and recreating a lot of the events we love to watch and compete in would not be easy. But we also need to consider whether we've tolerated too many lies in exchange for "nice" swim meets.



Get Faster, Faster: Work on Starts

Of all the skills you need to swim fast, the block start stands alone. It is the only swimming "technique" that has your entire body out of the water. Somehow, despite how simple the fundamentals for a good start are, poor start technique is everywhere, from the beginning to elite levels.

Don't believe me? I used to have a terrible start. I spent my first two years in competitive swimming tucking my knees into my chest to protect from belly flops. By the time I finished college, I had progressed to a slow two-foot on the front of the blocks leap.

So when I made my masters swimming comeback this year, I knew I needed to get better. But more than any other technique, it's really impossible to improve your start unless you can see what you're doing. Because I always swim alone, I had to sheepishly ask a lifeguard to film me.

Then I watched the video, and tried again. It didn't take a lot of attempts, but considerable focus to change my instincts.

When I got to my first meet, this happened (I'm in the farthest lane with a white cap)

Slow the video down to quarter speed at the start. It wasn't a perfect start, but I smoked my competition off the blocks. My start went from "mildly terrible" to pretty good with just a little bit of work. 

So how did I do it?

Start Learning

The nature of coaching swimming is that most knowledge is passed down from coach to coach. For whatever reason, very little knowledge about starts makes its way out there. That's a shame, because a start can have a huge impact on a swim.

Most people focus on reaction time, and if you do that you'd think there is very little reason to work on starts. Bad reaction times are in .8 or slower, good ones are .6 (sometimes .5, I was .58 in the video above. So why spend a lot of time on something that only means a couple of tenths difference?

The start has a domino effect on the race that follows it. A good start can get you into clean water, allowing you to swim free from the disturbance of others. Think Anthony Ervin with a slightly better start winning Olympic gold again. 

Having a great start also gives you a psychological benefit. I used to panic after my start- knowing that I had to play catchup on the rest of the field. Having a good start allowed me to settle down and swim my race as I had planned.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the kind of flexibility work you need to do to work on your start improves your technique on all four strokes, as well as turns and underwater swimming. One of the most frequent questions I see posted to the Swim Coaches Idea Exchange group on facebook is "Help with this start!". I'm here to help.

Are you a coach that wants to be great at coaching starts or a swimmer looking to get a competitive edge? Write me


Swimming Is Too Cheap and Too Expensive

Swimming is a sport of privilege in the United States. That is not to say that everyone in swimming is rich, in fact quite the opposite (especially the coaches). The sport as presently constructed is extremely expensive. 

It is important to note that when I say "expensive" in this context, I'm not just talking about the almighty dollar. In fact, the expenses you can't put in a savings account far outweigh those that you can. Let's take a look at a few of the ways that swimming bears a huge cost for so many of the people that pursue it seriously:

The Swimmers

What is a "swimmer" in the United States? The vast majority are school age children. Therefore we can't talk about them without considering them as part of a family unit. Also, since they aren't in most cases expected to be full-time earners, we don't quantify their time in terms of the money they could "make".

But their time is valuable. We put public resources into their education for that very reason. So, every hour that they spend in the pool is time that cannot be spent doing something else. Every minute spent commuting to and from practice and to meets near and far costs valuable time.

Their participation is also extremely demanding on their families. Unlike a country, say like Denmark, where I used to coach, that has a wonderfully functional public transportation system and is generally safe to ride your bike from place to place in, Americans depend on cars for transportation. Parents of swimmers will therefore often spend inordinate amounts of time in cars. That time is another expense.

The Coaches

If many coaches seem unsympathetic to those costs, there is a reason for that too. Somehow despite the crazy expenses of swimming, many coaches draw very modest salaries. In exchange for those salaries, they are often expected in many cases to do the jobs of two or more people.

Consider your best local club swimming program. In order to pay their coaches even a modest salary they need to fill their lanes. As a college coach, it was not atypical for me to attend club practices at some of the best club teams in America where one coach presided over 30 or more swimmers. This is far from a club problem, in fact "elite" college teams stockpile huge rosters of swimmers as if some of them have an expiration date.

Now, would you consider it a good educational environment for a child if a math teacher had to preside over a class of 30 or more students? Many would not. What if your math teacher also responsible for teaching that huge group in an environment where she might need to leap in to save someones life. 

Why do teams charge the same fee for membership even as groups grow to huge sizes? The quality a coach can deliver to a particular athlete drops off exponentially past a certain point. if I were to guess, this point is around 12:1 athletes to coaches, but thats probably being generous and it could be 10:1 or 8:1.

So let's do some math on a single group of 30 athletes being coached for two hours by one coach. If the coach is delivering personalized feedback for the entire two hours (an impossibility, but let's just run with it anyway), and somehow spreads herself evenly, every athlete gets four minutes of personalized instruction.

What are you paying for?

The reality is that on many swim teams, despite the huge costs in time from swimmers, families and coaches, there is too little value making it through to either side. Both sides bear responsibility for how to fix this broken model.

On the swimmer side, families need to think about what they actually want to get out of participating in swimming, and how much that should cost. In many cases, there is likely too much of that cost equation that comes in the form of time and too little in the form of actual currency.

For coaches their is a need for re-calibration as well. Too often coaches pile on another practice, another competition, another week of the year without thinking about how incredibly expensive each of those things are for everyone involved. As coaches we need to demand and deliver efficient, valuable training, instead of always more.

We also need to stop agreeing to be the swim coach, the strength and conditioning coach, the sport psychologist, or even the director of operations (the list sometime goes on) for a team. Because no human being can do all these jobs really well. 

Swimming can reach even greater heights if we come together and realize that we are both spending too much and too little on it. 

Want to get more out of your swim training?


Lotte Friis Was Too Classy For This Sport

I first met Lotte Friis as a fan. I had stood in the stands, with my big Danish flag, waving it furiously as she battered her American opposition at the 2011 Duel in the Pool. Afterwards, I approached her cautiously and asked for a photo.

Three years later I found myself negotiating a contract to have her change her Danish club representation to the team I coached. On her next trip back home, she was in the water for practice.

Friis will not live long in the memories of casual swimming fans. That's a shame. Her best performances came races where Katie Ledecky did even better. She was an uncommonly brave swimmer, something that was in stark evidence even at her low points.

Friis was bitterly disappointed by the 2012 Olympic 800. As a coach, I wouldn't have been. Lotte Friis swam to win. She knew the only way to beat Ledecky was to stay in the race. There was no sense in waiting for the final sprint- that wasn't how Lotte Friis won races.

But while her pool racing was brash, outside of the water she was almost too kind. She deserved to have a big ego, but didn't. She was a tremendous ambassador for the sport of swimming and a good teammate. She was a superstar that knew how to instantly dismantle your awe of her.Friis' seemed to me habitually under-appreciated. She had to deal with a tabloid press (and even coaches) that celebrated her success but weren't shy about calling her "fat" when they wanted to insulate themselves from any disappointing performance. Oh, and they criticized her stroke for good measure, as if somehow a person could be woefully out of shape and lack any kind of skill, yet break world records.

When I think of Lotte Friis' swimming career I'll always remember her 2013 duels with Ledecky. A lesser swimmer would have been shaken by the London final. Friis was older, Ledecky was ascendant. It should have been a blowout.


It wasn't. Friis hung in the race until the final 100m. She went all fifteen rounds of a championship bout with perhaps the heaviest puncher in swimming history. Like the name of her book, Lotte Friis was a fighter.