by SwimSwam Contributors 1

January 17th, 2022 Lifestyle

Courtesy: John Holden

We often hear the term “a teacher or a coach has a good rapport with his/her class or squad,” but what exactly is rapport? Bond, harmony, respect and trust immediately spring to mind and no doubt you can think of other concepts which nestle within the tacit dimension of rapport. We do not give it much thought, only that we believe that we are getting along nicely with our charges with a strategy of ‘what’s best for the group.”

That is a secure feeling and I sincerely hope that classes do get on with their teacher or coach but rapport goes further than merely ‘getting on.’ We need greater compatibility for our charges, to foster concord, harmony and unity: we need to develop a strong rapport. The starting point is to look at ourselves. How can you be absolutely sure that you are getting on with every swimmer all of the time? We are not mind readers and we all know that youngsters can have ‘mood swings.’ Some are expressed vociferously yet others are silently disclosed. The answers is that we can never be too sure what they are thinking or what is bothering them, or their perceptions, fears and phobias. That is why a strong rapport is essential if any sort of progress, respect or growth can be made either in lessons or within teams in order to achieve this sort after commodity, “success”. It was the great Luciano Pavarotti who said

“There is no such thing as a great teacher or a great student – it’s when they come together.” (2019) Simplified: one cannot be successful without the other.

As teachers and coaches, we all want it but success is a journey and not a destination. You take your team to the finals of a competition; you may even win and become the champions. The trophy looks really nice and then what happens? The following season or year the whole rigmarole starts all over again. A swimmer achieves his first 10 meters and subsequently gains an array of awards but (s)he will eventually stop doing them. The effect of your rapport will be tested more when they have stopped swimming, than when they were swimming! Hopefully, you will have done a lot more for them than just medals, trophies and badges.

When swimmers leave their formal swimming, they may well forget what sets they did on Tuesday night or where they gained their bronze medal or even what they learnt but one thing they will never forget is who their coach or teacher was and what (s)he stood for. Subsequently, your beliefs and values will have an everlasting impact, good or bad!

Fairness is one element that develops rapport. You have a set of principles in order to portray your poolside practice and justify your reasons for actions, but are you fair? Do you turn up for every session? Do you arrive on time? Do you give your time evenly between the swimmers or do you have swimmers to whom most of your time is centred?

The premise that the teacher or coach finds it easier to get on with some youngsters than with others is a fair one and you cannot treat different groups or classes in exactly the same way as the group dynamics and individuals differ. There is nothing wrong with having favourite classes or squads. I would go as far as to say there is nothing wrong with having favourite swimmers. I know I do, because I am human but a skilful practitioner, although (s)he will have favourites, will hopefully not show it. If you do, then you cannot expect to have any sort of rapport or relationship with your squad or class; in fact you can expect to lose them. Consequences of this favouritism will result in a demoralising effect on other individuals as Councilman confirms:-

It happens too often that a coach is guilty of concentrating his efforts, attention and hopes at the cost of ignoring others…to those who are neglected, the frustration becomes demoralising. (Councilman 1977)

If you do not show favouritism, do you still make your judgements fairly or do you act more in a utilitarian way; that is the greatest good for the greatest number? Is this approach always wise and when you make this kind of judgement can you cater and support the other swimmers who have been ‘left out of the equation?’ In order to treat swimmers equally, you have to treat them differently in accordance with their individual needs and abilities.

There is another side of fairness and that is firmness. If you look at any successful team be it sporting or otherwise, one of its components is that it is well disciplined. Therefore, are firm words wrong in certain circumstances? No, is the answer providing the coach or teacher looks very carefully at the style and form in which the words are delivered. An ‘authoritarian relationship’ can be positive at certain times and in certain circumstances, but it must never develop into a ‘power relationship’ where swimmers are frightened to attend their swimming lessons or training sessions. Fairness can be equated with firmness when you have to tell a youngster that certain aspects of his/her award were not what you expected when you come to test them. To pass a student simply out of sympathy does not give you or the student any credibility. If a swimmer has been left out of the team for whatever reason, the swimmer needs careful handling.

A fair and firm approach can only thrive if it is consistent. If it is inconsistent, then respect and rapport will abate. Children thrive best on consistent treatment from the important adults in their lives. Such treatment allows them to increasingly predict what is likely to happen next in their relationship with these adults and to see their social world as an essentially lawful and understanding place.(Fontana 1993)

Honesty is an essential part of this fairness If you want to be fair, openness cannot be promoted if you are secretive. People do not necessarily like the truth but they are more likely to accept it than a coach trying to put forward an obscure interpretation of what (s)he really means. There also needs to be some form of formality with every group and I do not necessarily mean strictness but it is better to start on a formal note rather than to treat them all as ‘mates.’ It is very difficult to keep the class on a productive focus if you have been over-laxed at the beginning. To facilitate this, be aware of your own ‘mood swings’ and your subjective perceptions which influence your judgements when on poolside. However, if you are fair, then you are more likely to be consistent and as a result, confidence can be built.

Therefore, the second essential component to rapport is confidence and this is an important dichotomy of our poolside manner. We are looking at both confidence in the coach and confidence from the coach. The former relates to his/her personal values and qualities and that is a practical reasoning to penetrate his/her true worth in all situations and his/her ability to uphold the individual dignity of swimmers and to establish human relationships. It goes without saying, that the teacher or coach has to be technically sound if (s)he wishes to gain the confidence of the swimmers at whatever level he/she teaches but I admire a teacher or coach who is open when it comes to gaps in his/her knowledge when (s)he says “I don’t know” or “I have forgotten – I will find out and let you know,” rather than try and bluff their way out of it to impress.

Confidence from the coach must be something inspirational and it is not easy as it takes time because you can never be sure which interpretation is correct when dealing with each individual. A successful coach has to have excellent man-management skills but this is insufficient. The coach or indeed the teacher has to present the impossible and get the swimmer to achieve it! Therefore, in order to put this into practice, the coach has to see him/herself in some form of leadership role. I am somewhat treading on a minefield of discussion when I open the door to ‘sports leadership’ but Aristotle summed up the qualities of leadership to just four, justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude.

The third component of rapport, and probably the most important, is social ardour, or to quote a theological term, agape. Some teachers and coaches are very sound technically but are somewhat ‘cold’ when it comes to sound rapport with swimmers, even if they do ‘get on’ with their charges to a certain degree or level. Coaches tend to use excess humour as a ‘front’ to hide this inadequacy. The evidence, in this case, is not seen but heard when the swimmers say, “(S)he’s all right for a good laugh.” but do not give any credibility such as “(S)he is a good coach with a sense of humour.” Another reason for this ‘coldness’ is some teachers and coaches expect the swimmers to serve their needs rather than the teacher/coach serving the needs of the swimmers. It reminds me of a phrase we hear often in swimming clubs, “I’m only going to do it if I’m paid for it.”

Helping and responding to individual needs and to serve and not be served, encourages trust, self-disclosure and variability from individuals. This returns us again to inspiring confidence or as I have categorised ‘confidence from the coach.’ By far the greatest satisfaction I gain from my teaching and coaching is to see swimmers grow in confidence as individuals – irrespective of what time they do for 100m freestyle! Beware, there is a difference between confidence and conceit. Conceit from the coach can best be described as Capital Sin!

“Getting on with classes” and “good relationships” are commendable but are insufficient if the class/squad wants to grow, perform better and achieve what seemed at first, impossible. Successful rapport revolves around, fairness, confidence and social ardour, but they can only be effective if all three are working at the same time. Fairness is putting the right reason into action. Confidence is convincing a swimmer to be the best they can and Social Ardour is something eternal and immutable and for this reason, it is Rapport’s greatest component.


  • Pavarotti L  BBC Documentary 2019 Ron Howard
  • Councilman J Competitive Swimming Manual For Coaches and Swimmers 1977 Pelham
  • Fontana D Psychology For Teachers 1995 Macmillan


John Holden has a degree in Education (BEd) from the University of East Anglia where he coached the Varsity team. He is a qualified teacher and has been coaching and teaching swimming for over 38 years. Holden was the UK’s key note speaker at the International Federation of Swimming Teachers (IFSTA) in Hong Kong in 2004. A Sir Winston Churchill Fellow, he writes extensively for swimming publications all over the world and he is currently on the coaching staff of the North Norfolk Vikings Swimming Club, UK.

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4 months ago

I absolutely enjoyed reading this piece.
In particular, his use of AGAPE was completely on target – bravo!