In Pursuit of Coaching Excellence

Courtesy: John Holden, Club Coach to the University of E-Anglia UK

Dictionary definitions will summarize that a coach is either a four-wheeled vehicle that transports passengers or someone who teaches, instructs or trains.  Therefore, there is no difference between coaching and teaching if we adhere to the dictionaries. However, others feel that there is a distinct dichotomy between the two.

There are performance personnel who prepare athletes for competitions and others who enable swimmers to initially survive in water and subsequently help them to become safer, more skillful and gain more fitness which enables them to enjoy swimming all the more. The former have been traditionally called coaches and the latter teachers. In either case, they both teach, instruct or train, so the whole rigmarole of the differential argument has now turned full circle again which means that the principles of the traditional dichotomy of teaching and coaching values are one of the same in our pursuit for coaching excellence.

As Shakespeare says “what’s in a name?” and whether we like it or not, we are still being referred to as swimming instructors by employers and the general public in the same way as scout leaders are still scout masters and head teachers are still headmasters/mistresses. What matters is what we produce and how we coach and that leads all conscientious coaches to pursue this excellence, irrespective if they teach, train or instruct.

Therefore, where do we get it this excellence from? The starting point is your next session/lesson which has to be more than just the normal session. Innovation plays a key role and that is combined with imagination, differentiation and evaluation; rather than sticking rigidly to set textbook dogma. To illustrate, it was said that Denis Law asked Bill Shankley about doing a coaching course. Shankley told him to go to Lilleshall, do an FA coaching course, come back, do the complete opposite and he will have a successful team!

I am not advocating for one moment that coaches should ‘do the opposite’ but Shankley was saying a lot more in that the course was only a basis and that coaching had to be  innovative. This can take a number of forms in the way the schedule/lesson is planned, the way the swimmers take ownership for their practice, what is included and the style and form in which the work is delivered. I am sure all coaches believe in variety of practice but sometimes when I watch sessions it seems to be a variation on the same old format  A coach must be able to “read” his charges well.  That way he can ‘cut his cloth according to its width’ and with imagination and differentiation, (s)he is able to capture the confidence of the group and deliver quality coaching.

Shankley also told his Liverpool players that if the ball comes into the box, they were to stick it in the back of the net and he would discuss the options with them later! The lesson here is for the coach to remember what (s)he is on the pool side for and not to over complicate matters. Swimmers have to have complete focus as to what their  aims and objective are. This can range from achieving the next award through to achieving a qualifying time. Therefore, goal setting is very important which should be incorporated into each individual lesson/session on the way to achieving the next level. This way the lessons/sessions are challenging and have a direct purpose.

Differentiation plays a major role in each session; even if it is deemed that the swimmers are in a set squad or lesson of a compatible standard. Group work and lane work are a huge benefit to the individuals. To illustrate, when planning a schedule for the University of East Anglia Club, it would appear they are competent swimmers at the outset.  So does one schedule makes sense? I could use the one but I get better improvement by planning three different schedules for three different abilities. I am also able to pitch innovative and challenging work, give appropriate feedback to individuals and be more alert to individual needs. This in turn enhances performance and enjoyment. Although a focus on performance is essential there is word of caution.

There is a danger that focusing only on performance may undervalue the interpersonal relationship and its contribution to individual growth (Cross, Lyle et al 2003)

It is here that we must examine our coaching philosophy and the fundamental question is why am I coaching? Is it to serve my needs or serve the needs of my charges?  A starting point may include the way you welcome your swimmers when they arrive on the pool side and it does not have to be a verbal greeting. Your appearance must be smart and looking the part. Unfortunately some coaches I have seen dress as though they are just about to go to the beach and psychologically this can conjure up a feeling of unwelcoming.  On the philosophy of “welcoming,”  I do not mean that you have to be over friendly but equally the idea is to make sure you speak to everyone in your squad/class at least once during your session/lesson and listen to the student voice. You must allow the student voice to play a vital part in your own evaluation of your performance and future planning and we are not looking for variables which are complex. We just need to “stick the ball into the back of the net”. It may just be a simple question such as “How did you find the repeat time on the 100s?” By putting all this into practice you are well on the way in your pursuit for coaching excellence.

Good coaches seek constant improvement in their search for personal excellence. They have an open mind and an insatiable thirst for knowledge.(NCF 1998)

The quest for knowledge, no matter at what level you coach or whom you coach, is vital and this is where continuous professional development is essential. Watching other coaches, attending seminars, reading relevant information, trying new ideas, using one’s imagination and evaluating, enhance coaching effectiveness and performance in the pursuit of coaching excellence.


Cross, Lyle et al  The Coaching Process  Butterworth/Heineman 2003

National Coaching Foundation  Analysing Your Coaching  NCF Leeds 1998

About John Holden

John Holden has a degree in Education (BEd) and is a qualified high school teacher and swim coach in the UK. He has been coaching and teaching for 38 years. Holden was the UK’s keynote speaker at the International Federation of Swimming Teachers (IFSTA) conference in Hong Kong in 2004.

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