9 Swim Parent Tips on What Makes a Coach Great

Courtesy of Elizabeth Wickham

Coaches come in all sizes, personalities and abilities. Their job is a tough one. They work at dawn, at night and most weekends. They don’t have a ‘normal’ schedule like most of us enjoy. Their job is in a fish bowl where they open themselves up to scrutiny by all of us. When they aren’t on deck, they work on administrative duties like meets, workouts, and structuring the year in macrocycles and mesocycles.

What we observe and many parents comment on is a coach’s style. Since we all have different personalities, we appreciate some styles more than others, and often prefer ones similar to our own. If a coach is talkative, quiet, stoic or fierce, those traits are not the best way to figure out ability. My kids had many different coaches throughout years of aging up and having coaches leave the sport or move. They each had different strengths—and my kids learned something valuable from each and every coach.

A coach can be one of the most influential people in your child’s development. That’s why we all want the best coach for our kids.

Here are nine traits that great coaches have in common:


Honesty — This goes without saying that good coaches are honest and have integrity. We expect our coaches to be good role models for our kids and walk the walk.


Passion — A passionate coach loves swimming. If they put 110 percent into their coaching, then they expect your swimmer to care as much, too. Their passion will keep your swimmer trying through all the hard times like missed cuts, injuries or plateaus.


Communication — Think of all the different people a coach communicates with. Swimmers of all ages and abilities, parents, media, city officials, other coaches and administrators. Good communication skills, writing and speaking, keeps information flowing.


Great listener — Being a good listener is part of communication, but also a separate part of coaching. What I’ve read about great coaches is that they listen to what an athlete is saying, and also figure out what they mean.


Knowledgeable in the sport — There’s a lot more to coaching than standing at the edge of the pool and saying, “Go.” You want a coach that is always learning, sharing information with other coaches. You want a coach who understands training cycles and that all swimmers are different and have different needs as far as training and tapering.


Organizational skills — You want a coach who is organized and shows up to practice prepared. A good coach has a plan for the season and the entire year. They appreciate the value of goal setting and will help your child reach their goals.


Caring about the athlete as a person — Great coaches care about their swimmers. They want to help get them into college. They ask how they are doing, not only with swimming, but in school. Coaches understand that swimming teaches life lessons that will help their swimmers become amazing adults in and out of the pool.


Uses failure as life lessons — A coach understands when a swimmer is disappointed with a swim. But, they can use this temporary failure to motivate and teach the swimmer what they can do next time to improve.


Inspiring — An inspirational coach will motivate your swimmer to be the best he or she can be. They will challenge your swimmers to do more than they thought was possible. Most of all, an inspirational coach will teach your swimmers to believe in themselves.

There are many more traits that make coaches great. What do you think makes a good coach?

Elizabeth WickhamElizabeth Wickham volunteered for 14 years on her kids’ club team as board member, fundraiser, newsletter editor and “Mrs. meet manager.” She’s a writer with a bachelor of arts degree in editorial journalism from the University of Washington with a long career in public relations, marketing and advertising. Her stories have appeared in newspapers and magazines including the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Parenting and Ladybug. You can read more parenting tips on her blog.

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Jack Baker
5 years ago

If your swimmer’s coach have these qualities – pay them more in order to keep them at your club!!!

In my 14 years – I would say less than 10% of USA Swimming Club coaches (especially at the senior level) exemplify these qualities.

The sport is consistently riddled with coaches who go back as far as the 80’s and followed the training methods of other coaches who had gifted swimmers that responded to tons of yardage and survived insane dryland training.

Too many coaches brainwash kids and their parents thinking they will never be successful if they leave the program. Too many coaches are so into themselves and their own success. They post “their” success on their resume as if… Read more »

Reply to  Jack Baker
5 years ago

I am a USA Swimming coach, and while 10% might be a little low for an estimate, the sport does have plenty of coaches who do not hold themselves to the same standards they expect out of their swimmers. If you are fortunate to have a coach who genuinely cares and is passionate about his job, let him know he is appreciated!

Reply to  Jack Baker
5 years ago

10% huh? Did you know that 84% of all statistics are made up? I will say though that yes, there are coaches out there that lack some of the qualities mentioned. And yes, some of them have been in the sport for decades and have gotten stubborn in their ways. But there are several (I’m willing to bet a lot of money it’s more than 10%) who possess many of these qualities.

“…brainwash into thinking they will never be successful if they leave the program.” Not so sure about this, it’s definitely not true at my club. But is it really so bad if a coach doesn’t want a kid to leave their program?

“They post their success on their… Read more »

Reply to  thedudeabides
5 years ago

Some teams do keep a Scholastic Swim/Honor Roll. They emulate the USAS Scholastic All-Amercian criteria on a team level…for example “BB” time and all B/A grades gets one award, “A” time(s) and A grades or 3.5 GPA gets a higher award, etc.

I think it is great when coaches show interest in the child as a whole person…balancing school with academics, and also community service, builds character and good citizens. It is NOT just about their times…the kids that have good times and poor grades or weak character will not turn out to be better adults.

Coach JB
Reply to  Jack Baker
5 years ago

As I read Mr. Baker’s comments it really made me sad. Here’s why:

1. As I think about all of the good coaches I know all I think of are the ones who are honest, hard-working and willing to put in the work at all levels.

2. Many of these coaches have to work extreme hours and sacrifice their personal time with their family.

3. Many of these coaches are paid poor wages for the amount of time they spend working and molding their young charges. I know a few coaches who I feel are less than responsible or complete narcissists, but those are few and far between. Many are coaches of small clubs of 60-80 athletes in small towns… Read more »

Donald P. Spellman
Reply to  Coach JB
5 years ago

Amen Coach JB

Donald P. Spellman
Reply to  Jack Baker
5 years ago

Seriously Mr. Baker? You got some issues here.

1. 10%? Give me a break. Have you been on a USA-S pool deck recently?
2. I want my kids to be great people (pool, classroom, public) but the biggest impact I directly have is on their competitive performances. I teach them life skills through the sport of swimming.
3. All the good coaches (in any sport) I know are consistently searching for new paths to success for their athletes. Some swim coaches do repeat sets / workouts but if your training is stagnant your results and program will end up being so too.

5 years ago

I believe there is no perfect Coach, but I wish there is.
I believe in my son’s swim club coach, he’s not perfect but I know he can do his job very well. He’s a great inspiration to our kids, though not so much to others. My son looks up to him so when his Coach doesn’t show up to practice I feel like he’s failing him. I admire their loyalty to him and even with all his shortcomings they still understand and respect him (as I said, most of them). #2,5,6,7,8&9 I believe he’s got it ??.

The other Coach, unfortunately my son doesn’t look up as much as his club coach, but I think he’s doing… Read more »

Ditto Jack Baker
5 years ago

Thank you so much for explaining all
Mr.Baker. I could not agree with you

Appreciative Swim Parent
5 years ago

Wow, I guess we’re spoiled at Eagles Swim Team in Owings Mills, MD. Our head coach, Scott Ward, has all of these qualities and more! I never realized it was so rare; thanks Coach Ward!

5 years ago

I have been in swimming for about 30 years (swimming,coaching and parent). I agree with coach JB there are so many great things most coaches do. No SWIMMOM there is no perfect coach but there is also no perfect person or parent so why would you expect a perfect swim coach? But I do have to say that if your coach has passion for the sport and teaching the kids, then they dont have to be GREAT at the other 8 things. And as a parents rather than pointing out and dwelling on the flaws, lets help our coaches become better in those other areas. But coaches if you dont have passion for the sport and your kids then do… Read more »

5 years ago

My husband and I are masters swimmers and he’s chosen a career in coaching swimming. During a week that doesn’t have a swim meet, he typically works 50+ hours. Add a swim meet and then he’s up to 80 hours. He doesn’t take days off, really thinks about his swimmers’ training and the meaning behind each set. I don’t know how he does it some days. He might be in the category of a coach that gives more yardage, but that yardage isn’t just one speed, one stroke, or one mindset. He isn’t one of those coaches that gives the kids a set and sits down in his chair with a cup of coffee. We both have been around some… Read more »

Reply to  SwimFL
5 years ago

I don’t think most people have any idea how many hours coaches put in on and off the deck (and how many of those hours are in the evening and on weekends when most people are home with family). This is one of the big reasons there are so many fewer women coaches than men, IMO. If you are married to someone who works a normal 9-5 schedule, you won’t see your spouse much as a coach. If you have kids? Even harder to manage a coaching schedule. Top that off with helicopter parents that have never swum telling you how to coach or panicking when their kid doesn’t drop time every single meet – sometimes coaches get a little… Read more »

Appreciate a Quality Coach
5 years ago

To many swim clubs meaning “Parent
Run Boards” Do not understand all
that goes into developing a fantastic
coach and club swimmers! Great Coaches are difficult to find!!! Embrace
the talented ones and do not assume
another top notch one is around the
corner who you can compensate less
and will do the job better! Is it about the
Athletes or just numbers and money?!?
The size will continue to grow with a
passionate Coach who is a Leader!!!

Bill V.
5 years ago

Swim parents are largely unqualified to comment on what makes a coach great.
That doesn’t stop them, though.

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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