To be a Great Coach, Be Inquisitive

by SwimSwam Partner Content 7

August 15th, 2018 Training

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

To be a great coach, be inquisitive.

Historically, some of the greatest coaches in the sport of swimming were also the most inquisitive. They never stopped questioning. Understanding that they were far from having all of the answers to making swimmers faster, they constantly challenged the hierarchy, the establishment. Often they would try out new ideas, whether on technique or training, experimenting, or trying to find a better way. Usually, they turned to be right, but not always. It was their willingness to change, to push the envelope, whether right or wrong, that moved our sport ahead.

I have been blessed to have known or swum under some of these pioneer coaches. Some were very science-based, like Doc Counsilman. Others, like Mike Bottom, were more artistic and creative. Doc never stopped thinking or questioning or reading or learning. I never knew a man who knew so much about so many different subjects. While his doctorate was in physiology, he knew a great deal about physics, kinesiology, psychology, art, opera, music, and just about any other subject you could bring up. Yet he never spoke with a ‘know it all’ attitude. He could speak to anyone on a level that she or he could readily understand and relate to; a rare gift.

Mike is more of a creative, artistic coach. Every day at workout time, he will shoot from the hip, changing up a planned workout, experimenting with a new set or drill that might make his swimmers faster. Part of his strategy was to prevent boredom, keeping his workouts unpredictable, and part was to figure out a better way to swim faster. He always welcomed new ideas coming from his swimmers or staff and implemented them well.

Nort Thornton, the great coach from Cal, was another inquisitive coach. He never stopped reading and learning, trying out new ideas every season. Nort was a deep thinker, very intelligent, always questioning the establishment.

Flip Darr, coach of myself, Shirley Babashoff, the Furniss brothers, and many other Olympians, was an unconventional, out-of-the box coach. It seemed like every season, Flip would show up to practice with a new toy he had developed for training; homemade hand paddles, surgical tubing for resistance training or whatever he could think of to torture us in a different way.

Don Gambril (Pasadena, Long Beach, Harvard, Alabama), Peter Daland (USC), Eddie Reese (Texas), Dick Jochums (Long Beach, Arizona, Santa Clara), Skip Kenney (Stanford), and David Marsh (Auburn, Swim Mac, UCSD) were/are also very deep thinking coaches. All have or had inquisitive minds that never stopped questioning how we do things.

We are fortunate to be in a sport where coaches share information willingly. There are no secrets, just undiscovered information. It is acceptable and advisable to copy the best coaches, but never assume that they have all of the answers. They don’t. They never will.

To be a great coach, learn from the best and copy others, but keep questioning.

Stay inquisitive.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

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Because Life is Worth Swimming, our mission is to promote swimming through sport, lifelong enjoyment, and good health benefits. Our objective is for each member of and each participant in The Race Club to improve his or her swimming performances, health, and self-esteem through our educational programs, services and creativity. We strive to help each member of The Race Club overcome challenges and reach his or her individual life goals.

The Race Club provides facilities, coaching, training, technical instruction, video, fitness and health programs for swimmers of all ages and abilities. Race Club swim camps are designed and tailored to satisfy each swimmer’s needs, whether one is trying to reach the Olympic Games or simply improve one’s fitness. Our programs are suitable for beginner swimmers, pleasure swimmers, fitness swimmers, USA swimming or YMCA swimmers, or triathletes; anyone who wants to improve swimming skills. All of our Race Club members share an enjoyment of being in the water and use swimming to stimulate a more active mind and body.

Courtesy of The Race Club, a SwimSwam partner.

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gary hall sr
4 years ago

I wish I had the honor of swimming under a great women’s coach during my era. There were not many. Can you name some of them in the 60’s and 70’s? I can think of a few but they were not near where I lived. Most came after I retired. Fortunately, the sport of swimming is changing for the better with more women coaches entering the profession.

4 years ago

Hey, Apso.. I hear what you’re saying. Better: I live what you’re saying.

I doubt there will ever be equal representation in competitive swim coaching at head coach levels. On the other hand, women outnumber men greatly at lower levels. We just don’t stick out the grind in large enough numbers. Swim coaching is an evil profession, it truly is. It breaks people, a lot of people and often. Just take a look at how far back nice little articles about coaches and parents go: decades.

And that’s the minor stress.

Aside from not being taken seriously regardless of how fantastic one’s education, swimmer achievements, etc etc a woman is pretty certain to still be seek as… Read more »

Reply to  KinSwim
4 years ago

Well said, Coach.

4 years ago

Swim Coaching is a male-dominated sport, past a certain level, historically. Maybe most women are more sensible and choose a profession that doesn’t have the extreme risk of divorce (swim coaches have an incredible high divorce rate in North America) or killer stress, or almost no home life, or all the other risks of being a swim coach.

And yes, I am a career coach, and a woman. I am speaking from experience. I have +30 years in the profession, +25 at head coach level, and you will never know who I am. And I don’t care that you (plural) won’t.

In the earlier years of coaching swimming, and I mean 60s-70s, finding a female swim coach working full-time was… Read more »

Reply to  KinSwim
4 years ago

Coach, I appreciate you adding your voice of experience here. And I appreciate your encouragement of young female coaches to keep pushing, particularly for being seen as strong leaders and not just “mommy coaches.” At the same time, I’m a bit more pessimistic about the future than what you seem to be saying, primarily because there are multiple forces that we’re just not talking about as a sport, let alone even willing to acknowledge. I don’t think that until we’re willing to have that acknowledgement of such things as gender bias, double standards, and even the social-cultural forces you named will things start to get better. (I think you may be advocating for such a discussion in your comment about… Read more »

4 years ago

Except if you’re a woman, then just keep your head down and don’t make waves, at the risk of losing your career.

Or, I guess the only great coaches in the history of swimming are men.

Reply to  Apso
4 years ago

Just to be clear, not taking anything away from these great men. They have been truly transformative. Just pointing out the double standard.