I always say that there are two aspects to coaching. The first aspect is obvious, but the second aspect is not so obvious. The first aspect of coaching is being able to teach the sport and develop your swimmers on a physical level. Again, that one is fairly obvious and most coaches are able to do that just fine. The second aspect of coaching, and the most important aspect of coaching, is understanding how to get the best out of people; the art of human management. The truly great coaches understand the importance of that second aspect and don’t neglect it or underestimate it.
You can be an amazing coach on a technical level. You can have world-class training methods and work your swimmers in the pool as much as you’d like. However, if you manage your swimmers’ minds and emotions poorly, none of your technical coaching ability, world-class training, or hours working with them in the pool will count for much, as you simply won’t be able to get the best out of your swimmers. The true art of great coaching is being able to, not only develop your swimmers physically, but to also develop them mentally; to understand what makes each of your swimmers tick and how you need to interact with them in order to get the best out of them.
Having said that, here are 5 great ways that you, as a swim coach, can develop your swimmers mentally and manage them in the correct way so that you can squeeze their full potential out of them, both in training and competition:
1) Be mindful of what you say, and how you say it.
All coaches have good intentions. No coach, in their right mind, ever intentionally says something that they know is going to harm their swimmers. However, having good intentions doesn’t mean it’s going to produce good results. For example, I’ve worked with many swimmers who have told me this story many times: “I was feeling good and ready to swim my race, but then my coach said something that made me feel a ton of pressure, so I got extremely nervous and it ended up affecting how I swam in my race.”
Coaches, be mindful of what you say. You may have the best of intentions in telling a swimmer something along the lines of, “Let’s go, it’s now or never if you want to make your cut.” However, in doing so, you can place a ton of pressure on them, make them become extremely nervous, and end up negatively impacting how they swim. The same is also true for when their swim is finished. You may mean to be humorous and joking around when you say, “Well, that was an awful swim now wasn’t it?”, but in doing so, you may shut them down emotionally going into their next event.
As often as possible, consider the potential impact your words may have on your swimmers and if it’s likely to impact them in a negative way, don’t say it. Change your approach and say it in a way that will lift your swimmers up and impact them in a positive way, not a negative. Don’t sabotage all of the hard work both you and they put in by saying the wrong thing, in the wrong way, at the wrong time. That ties directly into #2….
2) Get them focused on performance, not results.
Eddie Reese, the legendary coach at the University of Texas, said something that I thought was really interesting in an interview he gave after helping Texas win another men’s NCAA National Championship title this year. He said, “We never talk about winning a national championship. We just talk about being our best every day.”
As a coach, relieving pressure from your swimmers is one of the most important aspects of your role as their leader. The more pressure you can relieve from them and take off of their shoulders, the better of a mindset you’re going to put them in, the better they’re going to perform in the pool, and the better their results will be as a side-effect of that. This means that, as often as possible, keep the focus on performance and process rather than results and outcomes. Each day in training, talk to them about demanding excellence from themselves, not about trying to win that week’s meet. Talk to them about pushing themselves as much as they can and being 100% committed to each exercise they do, not about making certain cuts in their next meet. Talk to them about having fun, enjoying the sport, and loving what they do, not about winning medals or championships.
Nathan Adrian once said this:
“I always try to step back from having any expectations. I focus on me and my own race strategy because I’ve learned that that’s the only thing that I can control. I’ve found that I’m most comfortable when I’m focusing on execution and that’s when I’ll achieve those expectations that other people may have.”
On meet day, don’t place any results expectations on them. Everything you say, you want it to be performance and process-focused. For example, instead of saying, “We need to win this meet today/finish the day on top”, say something along the lines of, “Today, let’s focus on being dedicated to what we do and being the absolute best that we can be.” Instead of saying, “Come on, get out there and get a new personal best time”, say something along the lines of, “Hey, go out there, enjoy your race, and give it everything you can” or “Remember, execute those kicks and make those clean turns. You can do it.” Again, the more you get them to focused on enjoyment, performance, and execution rather than times, results, and outcomes, the better they’ll feel going into their races, the better they’ll swim in the pool, and the better the end-product will be.
3) Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.
I think that, too often, coaches feel like, in front of their swimmers, they need to be infallible, invincible figures that are perfect, don’t make mistakes, and never get things wrong. This behavior is often rooted in the idea that, if your swimmers feel like you are imperfect, made a mistake, or got something wrong, they’d lose respect for you or your sense of authority would decrease with them. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the opposite tends to be true. The more vulnerable and open you are about your imperfections, the more your swimmers can relate to you and the more connected they can become with you.
People don’t like people who give off an air of invincibility or who think that they’re flawless. Not only that, your swimmers can sense that and pick up on that kind of vibe if you give off that kind of vibe. Your swimmers are imperfect, just like you. The more you show your swimmers your human side, the more they’ll feel like they can relate to you. The more your swimmers can relate to you, the more connected they’ll feel to you. The more connected they feel to you, the more they’ll WANT to give to you everything they can in training, in competition, everywhere.
Playing soccer in college, I was extremely lucky to have that kind of coach. He was tough and he demanded the best from us, but if he made a mistake or got something wrong, he’d be the first person to put his hand up. He didn’t try to make his mistakes our mistakes. He wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable. Because of that, we respected him immensely and it made me willing to do anything for the guy. I would have run through a brick wall for him if he asked me to, and to this day, I still see him as one of my greatest mentors. The reason I hold him in such high esteem is because he wasn’t afraid to show his human side and let us all know that he was imperfect, just like us.
4) Strike a balance between criticism and praise.
You need to critique your swimmers. You need to pick apart, analyze, and evaluate their swimming. You need to talk to them about what their weaknesses and shortcomings are. Improvement, development, and growth can only come from that process. However, that criticism also needs to be balanced out with praise; the things they do well, the strengths they have, and the things they get right.
Too much criticism isn’t good. If all your swimmers hear you talk about with them is what they’re bad at and what they’re doing wrong, three things are going to happen. One, their confidence is going to get grinded into dust. Two, they’re going to assume that you don’t believe in them or have any confidence in them. And three, they’re going to develop a really poisonous habit of being extremely and overly self-critical. However, too much praise isn’t good either. If all your swimmers hear you talk about with them is what they’re great at and what they do well, then they’re never going to get exposed to the weaknesses and shortcomings they do have and that they need to work on and improve.
You have to strike the balance between critiquing your swimmers so that they can improve, develop, and grow, while at the same time, always be sure to praise them and acknowledge to them the great qualities they have, the wonderful attributes they possess, and the things they get right. That way, they get the best of both worlds – They can get better in the pool and grow with in the sport while still feeling confident in themselves and their capabilities. All human beings crave recognition and praise from others in some form, especially from our authority figures and people we see as our leaders. That’s just human nature.
5) Get to know your swimmers.
When you coach a swim team, you’re coaching a group of individuals, all of whom have their own quirks, qualities, attributes, and personalities. Suzy is different than Katie. Suzy is more reserved and introverted while Katie is more outgoing and personable. Michael is different to Josh. Michael is a bit more cold and hardened and doesn’t mind being screamed at during a set while Josh is more sensitive and tends to shut down if you start screaming at him during a set.
Jack Bauerle is another legendary coach and the head coach of the swimming program at the University of Georgia. He’s produced national championship winning teams, Olympians, national teamers, and the list goes on. His swimmers have talked about how one of his greatest strengths as a coach is that he’s able to know his swimmers, understand stand them, and grasp what makes each individual tick. Melanie Margalis once said this about Jack:
“Everybody is so different, but he knows how to treat each person the right way. I don’t know how you do that when you literally have a bunch of swimmers that are totally mentally different, but somehow you know how to treat every single one of them the right way. It’s pretty cool.”
If you want to get the best out of an individual swimmer, you have to understand them on a deeper level. You have to know what their personality is like. You have to know what makes them tick. You have to have the ability and humility to treat each of your swimmers as the individuals that they are and not just interact with the entire group in exactly the same way as if they were robots. You may get the best out of some if you do that, but you’ll be shutting down others who would otherwise thrive if you took the time to understand them individually.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week!
About Will Jonathan
Will Jonathan is a sports mental coach from Fort Myers, Florida. His clients include athletes on the PGA Tour, the Web.com Tour, Major League Baseball, the UFC, the Primera Liga, the Olympics, and the NCAA, as well as providing numerous talks and presentations on the mental aspect of sport and peak performance to various sports programs and organizations across the country. He’s currently the official mental coach for the Florida State University Swimming & Diving team. He provides private, 1-to-1 mental coaching sessions for swimmers on location or through Skype, as well as providing talks and presentations to swim teams on the mental aspects of swimming.
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