5 Fixable Mistakes Coaches Make With Their Swimmers

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. Join his weekly motivational newsletter for competitive swimmers by clicking here.

Over a nearly 20 year swim career I experienced a variety of swim coaches. Some great, some good, and a couple fairly so-so. They taught me a variety of hugely important lessons, from how to set goals to learning to focus on the process.

Those great coaches and the lessons they bring stick with you, and also highlight the things the not-so-awesome coaches were doing.

Here are five fixable mistakes that coaches make when it comes to developing better swimmers:

The newspaper coach.

There really isn’t much to say about this particular swim coach. Instead of watching and instructing they are more likely to be seen reading a newspaper (the modern equivalent would be using a cell phone) while swimmers perform mindlessly long repeats in the water.

Given that swimmers have only a couple hours in the water to refine their technique and develop better fundamentals that time should be spent being instructed.

Perhaps most critically, this type of disinterest, whether intentional or not, sets the tone for the group and team and filters downwards through the athletes and assistant coaches. If the coach doesn’t really care, then the swimmers are less apt to give a chlorinated woop-woop about their training as well.

Not communicating purpose.

“Just because,” isn’t an efficient motivator. Athletes want to feel engaged, they hunger to be part of the process.

When athletes understand the guiding principles behind a ridiculously hard set they are more likely to take ownership of it.

“To develop a stronger finishing kick,” or “To close your race like a boss,” or “This set is designed to help you demoralize the competition on the third 50 of your 200,” provides not only an understanding for the physiological benefits behind the prescribed sets, but it also creates a very clear and distinct benefit that the swimmer can use to stay focused and motivated during the set.

When swimmers understand and have purpose they are more likely to be engaged with those big workouts. Simple as that.

The blanket approach.

Swimmers are not born equal. What motivates one athlete won’t motivate the next. Swimming workouts that produce for one swimmer doesn’t inflict the same results as it would for another.

This is where coaching becomes more art than science; learning to adapt to the needs of individual athletes is hard. It requires creativity and individualized processes for various athletes.

French sprinter Florent Manaudou’s coach, Romain Bernier, notes as one of his greatest influences time spent swimming at Auburn where the program was tailored to the individual, and not the other way around.

Treating all swimmers with the same training protocol—whether they are sprinters or distance swimmers—only insures that the specialty swimmers are more likely to bounce out of the program, or worse, fall out of the sport altogether.

Being overly focused on the results.

Gold medals, records and the glory that comes with it are all great and lovely. But swimming is about so much more than that.

It’s about learning valuable interpersonal skills. Providing a platform for young people to learn how to set goals and plan to achieve them. And just as importantly as learning how to win, also learning how to lose as well.

Great coaches know that it’s not so much about the results as it is developing swimmers who understand the value of the process. Who get that it’s about showing up and working hard each day.

The “refuses to adapt” coach.

Fads come and go in training. There are surely going to be things swimmers and swim coaches are doing now that will be looked upon with ridicule in a few decades. It’s simply part of the evolving nature of training as we learn more about physiology and athlete psychology.

But then you have the coach who doesn’t believe in the basic pillars of performance.

As an age grouper I had one particular coach for one season who didn’t believe in tapering. Seriously. In the days leading up to our biggest meets of the year we’d be still be crushing 8,000m workouts.

As you can guess, that year I hardly improved while other swimmers my age were dropping time left, right and center. The attrition rate from the program was unbelievable as swimmers, frustrated with not seeing progress, inevitably lost interest in the sport.

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14 Comments on "5 Fixable Mistakes Coaches Make With Their Swimmers"

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Frustrated swimmer

Unfortunately, this describes my coach. The article states these are fixable mistakes. Any suggestions as to how a swimmer should fix these?

Pedro Bread

I would need more info before giving practical solutions. This might not be the best venue for posing the question, as readers use this site more for media consumption and not to chit chat. You could try usms.org and their forums, but that’s geared a bit more towards masters swimming, not age group. I’m sure there are age group forums out there, I just don’t know of any.

Mike DeBoor
I would start by setting up a meeting with the coach and discuss, during practice or during the set you dislike is not the time. Change takes time, just like adjusting a stroke, if a coach is to break away from what they believe in it will be a work in progress. I know that seems a simple answer, but I think it is your first step. This meeting would be a discussion not a debate and you get a better understanding of the coaches process and they may be open to some adjustments. Swimmers motivate the coach, just as you hope your coach motivates you, so the more invested and engaged you both are the better the outcome. I… Read more »

Mike Deboor, the legend himself has spoken

All five…

I strongly disagree with posting a list like this on a website geared toward swimmers (and swim fans) of all ages. Coaching competency is not black and white, but this article attempts to present a black and white rubric for swimmers and swim parents to grade their coaches with. A coaching style is effective when the swimmer believes in it. Unfortunately, our society loves scapegoats, so this article gives swimmers and their parents more ammunition to misinterpret against their coach. Swimmers: Trust your coach and focus on what YOU can do better. Your coach was hired, because whoever did the hiring felt that he/she was the best person to lead your team. Staying focused on his/her shortcomings (or trying to… Read more »
I disagree. While it’s true that coaching ability is not JUST black and white, that doesn’t mean that black and white don’t exist and everything is grey. Some things are objectively wrong, and I don’t see a problem with those behaviors being called out. For example, during the summer, there are always 2 or 3 other teams using the same long course pool as us at any given practice. One of those other coaches would literally just sit on the block the entire time looking at his phone. Apparently, one of the days that I wasn’t there, it was cold and windy so he just wrapped himself up in his hoody and laid down in the bleachers while his swimmers… Read more »
There are bad coaches out there. We’ve all seen those, and no one needs a rubric from the Swimbook guy to find them. This coach at your long course pool is one of them. I don’t defend those bad coaches. I defend satisfactory coaches who are unfairly judged and blamed for poor swimming due to an occasional “mistake.” My comment speaks to the fact that every coach (incredible all the way down to terrible) has had a complaint from someone at some point. Nowadays, when a swimmer doesn’t achieve the way they hope to, their first finger pointed is usually at the coach. In reality, any swimmer has far more power over his/her performance than his/her coach, but the coach… Read more »
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About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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