SwimSwam

Academy Bullets respond: a glimpse into the formation and philosophy of a mega-club

Our post last week about Rowdy Gaines taking over the South Florida YMCA swimming program inspired some passionate discussion in the comments section about the motivation, effects and philosophies of multi-location “super-clubs.” In order to help answer some of the major questions raised, SwimSwam caught up with Academy Bullets owner and coach Bill Schalz.

Schalz founded the Academy Bullets in 1994, which according to the club’s website was the first coach-owned swim team in Illinois at the time. In the 20 years since, the Bullets have grown to one of the largest clubs in the state, with four different locations and over 600 swimmers.

But the addition of those extra locations happened in a much more organic way than critics suggest, Schalz says.

“When we’ve added a new location, I was approached in every case by people wanting to bring the Bullets there,” said Schalz. “That seems to be one of the big misconceptions – I never went looking to expand my program. Other sites approached us.”

The additions have come in various ways. A mid-season coaching resignation in Springfield prompted one club’s boosters to meet with Schalz for advice. What began as a consulting meeting turned into the club asking to join the Academy Bullets umbrella.

In Riverside, a pattern of coaching turnover led to parents working to bring in a more established club program.

“The parent board of directors were a bit frustrated with hiring new coaches every couple of years,” said Schalz. “They felt that joining the Bullets would give them more consistency all around.”

When another Illinois club heard what Riverside had done, they decided they wanted in, too.

“When Bartlett found out about it, they called me to talk merger,” Schalz said, and thus the Bullets Bartlett location was born. Romeoville was added as a satellite through conversations with the Lewis University coach, who wanted a site for his college swimmers to train at over the summer.

Bringing various locations, each with its own coach, under the same umbrella led to some criticism of the Bullets for lumping different coaches with different philosophies under the same banner for meets. While Schalz said unifying the team is a challenge, he said its a challenge the organization has handled well.

“We’re not the Stepford Wives,” Schalz said, “where everyone is doing the same workout on the same day. We make it a point to hire great coaches and we want them to coach the way they coach because they’ve had success doing it.”

“On the other hand, we do want the team to be moving in the same direction. We have coaches meetings once a month and we do a lot of sharing workouts with each other.”

Schalz also said he’s seen his super-club grow more unified as the coaches learn from each other.

“As our coaches have gotten to know each other better, it’s been interesting to see their coaching styles come together and merge. It’s not accurate to say they are all coaching the same, but their coaching philosophies are definitely blending a bit.”

Schalz points to that sharing of information between coaches as a major reason why a large multi-site club system like the Academy Bullets helps give swimmers more to work with.

“The performance levels at all of our sites are better than before they joined our club,” he said, adding that the original site in Aurora has seen a distinct rise in its level of swimming as well.

“And at meets like [NCSA] Juniors, when we all come together and one athlete swims, chances are that some of our other coaches are watching them as well,” Schalz said, an extra set of eyes that can give swimmers diverse feedback they might not get from a coach who trains them on a daily basis.

With the rise of more and more multi-location mega-clubs across the country, this is a system that doesn’t appear to be disappearing anytime soon, though the philosophy and execution of the model is certainly up for tweaking and rethinking as coaches continue to mold their programs to fit the ever-changing world of age group swimming. One worry critics have is that the traditional concept of a “team” will fall by the wayside as swimmers from various areas go from complete strangers to fellow relay members on meet day before splitting up once again.

For its part, the Academy Bullets club is equally against that type of environment, Schalz said.

“You don’t want a situation where kids don’t know the other swimmers on their relay,” Schalz said. “We try to bring our groups together whenever we can.”

The good news is that in the social media age, once swimmers have met their teammates, they can continue building relationships even while separated by cities and zip codes by interacting on Facebook, Twitter and other networking sites.

Schalz noticed this while transporting his swimmers around at the recent NCSA Junior Nationals. “I was driving a van of athletes,” he said, “and we had a girl from Springfield and a girl from Aurora who were such good friends. I was blown away by this – two girls from different cities, but they were this close.”

“We’ve actually had other super-club coaches ask us ‘how are your kids such good friends?’,” Schalz said with a laugh.

Schalz says the Bullets still have much to learn about handling all of their locations – they’ve had the Bartlett and Springfield satellites for less than two years at this point – but are making a deliberate effort to take advantage of everything a multi-site club can offer.

“We really want to dispel the concept that it’s not in the best interest of kids,” Schalz said. “The kids are swimming faster, the coaches are working together, and we think that’s a good thing.”

Comments

  1. PositiveEnergy says:
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    Nothing wrong with the super team concept. In many ways they provide greater opportunities for swimmers and their families.

  2. Low Gap says:
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    “We’ve actually had other super-club coaches ask us ‘how are your kids such good friends?’,” Schalz said with a laugh.

    The only thing in this article that makes me cringe about the mega-club. Life is not perfect at every mega-club.

  3. Coacherik says:
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    @ Low Gap, name me a non mega-club that is perfect…

  4. Low Gap says:
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    @coacherik, absolutely good point. I think I actually probably land on the side of the mega-club all in all. I just think that the notion of team for some of them is sacrificed for the notion of winning at all costs. If done right however, and “team” is emphasized and encouraged, the mega-club model makes sense. Hard to do right though.

  5. Coacherik says:
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    @Low Gap I almost agree with your very last statement. It’s not hard to do right, it’s hard work to do right. It’s easy to have those sites and just say, make fast & see you at the champ meet. It seems they are making the effort to give the kids as much a team feel as possible, which ultimately will transfer into the success they want.

  6. NC Coach says:
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    In my mind, my biggest fear for a mega-club would be the club being thought of and ran as a business instead of a learning institution. Some of these mega-clubs try to advertise their club as a name brand and just pull in bodies to fill up lane space on the developmental level. It sounds like Academy, though, has not done this and has a genuine concern for their clubs integrity.

  7. erika says:
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    This is win at all costs. This teaches our kids that we win no matter what. It’s sad, these are young kids what kind of adults are we teaching them to be. At any state meet the deck is stacked against all the other teams. The good new is that people realize this, and although they think they win….not really the case. I could never raise my swimmers to have this sort of cut throat attitude, pathetic. To answer NC Coach this is beyond a business, a business I would never want my kids to be part of. Not sure I believe he was approached to add into other locations either….hmmm. I think the parents at these type clubs forget who’s really swimming….is it the parent or the child….you begin to wonder at some of these State meets especially. Moms wearing their kids medals, Really???

    • Hulk Swim says:
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      Erika, all of the issues you mentioned are not exclusive to ‘Mega-Teams’. They exist at all clubs.

      As for the approach- it happens. My former club was in a tough spot and we had discussions with a Mega-Team and nearly joined.

      It has many benefits as well as drawbacks. As a full time coach I can tell you I’ve only ever had medical coverage while on a Mega-Team. From a coaching persoective you lose some control over meets/travel etc. but you gain in other areas- sharing ideas, group practices, more opportunities for athletes to get to bigger meets more often (I know I can’t currently travel as much as I’d like because while my athletes can afford to go, my club can’t afford to send ME).

      As much as you’d like it to be, and as easy as that would make it to be angry about it, it’s often not about winning. It’s about opportunities- for the athletes and for the coaches. Winning is a byproduct of that, but it’s rarely the reason.

    • Henny Penny says:
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      Erika – Why hyperventilate over the issue? The fact that you draw the line on competition at a different point does not make the line drawn by those attracted to these teams “wrong.” This is no different than playing “travel hockey” or joining a “select” soccer team – it is a higher level of competition, against which those wishing to take part can test themselves. Not sure why you would feel compelled to say anything beyond “Not for me”, then leave it up to others to decide for themselves. There once was a time when the concept of forming a team from beyond the confines of an individual neighborhood was probably similarly decried, but community teams then became commonplace. This is the next step in the evolution.

      Also, the fact that a “super team” is formed should not diminish, in any way, from the individual performances of “your swimmers” and their accomplishments – a point which I’m sure you stress.

  8. morrow3 says:
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    As a coach from a mega club the main misconceptions come from COACHES of other programs. They constantly make statements like – all they do is swim, they don’t have fun, their kids don’t get along, their coaches don’t get along, etc. Then swimmers come try our program and find out the opposite. We usually get comments from parents about the different atmosphere at our club.

    We have a lot of social events to bring kids together outside of meets. Whether its a combined practice and pizza party, camp day where the age groups go to a pool to practice and have fun, movie days or even a travel meet. With a little effort, coaches can definitely build situations where the kids get to know each other. Is it perfect? No. But it does make us better to come up with fun ideas.

  9. Swims tee says:
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    We were a part of this “mega team” and we found it quite disturbing that when the kids from all the locations came together at meets nobody knew one another there was asense of favoritism from other coaches with their kids only,and coaches from the other sites had no input to give the other swimmers let alone not even knowing their name. We found this and the size of the club to be exactly that more of a business rather than a team or family atmosphere.

    • Atarijpb says:
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      Of course it’s a business and it should be. Businesses need to be successful to maintain momentum and provide opportunities for their coaches and athletes. I’ve been a part of a few “mom and pop” teams that don’t take things seriously and they run into financial trouble, coach favoritism, board problems and other situations. No club is perfect, but to suggest that a large club is inherently not as good or less of a “family” as a smaller club is both ill-informed and a matter of opinion.

  10. Patsy1120 says:
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    We ARE a part of this “mega team”. Our kids are NOT stars, but they are decent swimmers, and more importantly, have fun; at practice, outside of practice, and at meets. Our kids love coming together with the other sites for meets and practices. Our site is rather new and smaller than the others, so it is like a family, but when we get together with the other sites, we have a blast, both kids and parents. Sure, there are many aspects that appear to be business-like, but for the most part, it is about the kids, and the kids love it. If parents would stop being so darn “involved” (read that: micromanagers of kids) and let the coaches coach, their kids might have more fun and succeed on their own. I have witnessed many different coaches from other sites coaching my kids and other kids at meets, and likewise, at least one coach from each site, usually more like 2 or 3, are at each meet session. One of the mantras of the Academy Bullets is “One Team”. Check the hastag #oneteam. You’ll see. Go Bullets!

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About Jared Anderson

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Jared Anderson just can’t stay away from the pool. A competitive career sixteen years and running wasn’t enough for this native Minnesotan, who continues to get his daily chlorine fix. A lifelong lover of writing, Jared now combines the two passions as Senior Reporter for SwimSwam.com, covering swimming at every level. Read More »