This is the second part of a four part series. The first part outlined why the US is so successful at developing top swimming athletes before turning to a prescription for doing even better. This second part will focus on “King” coaches, whose authoritarian style dominates at all levels.
It’s never obvious when an idea becomes totally ingrained in a culture. That’s because it disappears, becomes part of the background. People decide that “it is the way it is”. Coaching systems in the United States are, in general, very hierarchical, and we hardly notice.
Many teams operate with a coach at the top making lots of decisions without any reasonable check on those decisions. The “King” says it is so, and then it is. Assistant coaches are taught to never publicly disagree with their bosses, and swimmers are generally dissuaded from doing the same.
Much like I cited in the previous article, strong-arming athletes can have short term performance benefits. It pays off big with age group swimmers, who are more prone than older teenagers to not challenge authority. This style also pays off short-term with young female athletes, already equipped with the cultural expectation of being “rules-followers”.
It is incredibly damaging in the long term. Young athletes who are developed under an authoritarian structure miss out on developing their own sense of autonomy. They feel dependent on coaches and will flounder when presented with the opportunity to take ownership of their own coaching.
Worse yet, having a “king” coach can lead to abuse. Look at the message board responses from most any coach who has received a ban for abuse. They all have plenty of enablers, people within their team that think whatever the “king” does is justified as long as the results are good.
Coaches should have a specific and actionable plan for how much autonomy swimmers get in their preparation at all levels. At the lowest developmental levels (8-11 years old), coaches can set up choices for swimmers between two options of equal value. For example, a choice between two technical sets that accomplish the same goal, or two dryland exercises that work on a similar function.
As the swimmer ages, the coach can continue to provide more opportunities to choice while remaining true to what they think the athlete needs to improve.
Another critical piece of the coach-athlete relationship is recognition and regulation of the athletes’ emotions. Coaches need to model emotional regulation- both showing true emotion and modeling how to behave properly in response to those emotions. When athletes “act out”, coaches need to recognize the emotions behind the behavior, recognize them, and offer guidance on appropriate response.
At all ages, goal setting is important. Swimmers need to feel like they are shooting for something and that the work they undertake will contribute to that goal. Before you utter the words “because I said so”, consider how you can improve your communication to an age appropriate level for whatever athlete you are talking to.
“King” No More
Authoritarian coaching causes a cascade of bad effects for athletes. At worst it enables abuse, at best it sets them up for failure down the line. Someday we will look back on this era of athletic coaching as the “dark ages” and wonder why so many of us accepted antiquated coaching techniques for so long.
The solutions are simple, and coaches who invest in the autonomy of athletes reap the rewards.
Chris DeSantis is a personal swim coach and consultant. He has an advanced degree in research backed methods for mental preparation. Like his facebook page and email him at [email protected] to book a consultation.