Ways to Improve the Developmental System: No More King Coaches

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.

The Problem

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.

The Solution

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.


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Swim mum
7 years ago

I’m so happy to see this issue with coaches being highlighted but even referring to these coaches as “Kings” is sending the wrong message. My suggestion is that they should actually be called “Coward Coaches” Speaking from first hand experience a number of coaches who behave like this are in reality pathetic human beings, hiding behind their “coach” title & their position of power over children & young people to emotionally abuse swimmers & other coaches often causing significant long term psychological damage through their bullying behaviours.

7 years ago

It makes me very nervous to see how one dimensional so many year round swimmers have become. Despite a good college experience, I was still very happy when it ended. I had no regrets and didn’t miss it a bit, because it never defined me. There are moments of unique and extreme reward, but the reality is that the sport is a major league grind, especially at the higher levels. No coach can make that go away completely, but many seem to go out of their way to make the sport as joyless as possible, even at the DIII level.

I am so grateful that the real priority of my college coach was academics. I was a good swimmer, but… Read more »

occasional traveler
7 years ago

This reads like the exact opposite of an Elizabeth Wickham article.

7 years ago

I agree with your article. There does need a cultural change. Definitely a work in progress. For assistant coaches who do speak out,there is still many parents and King coaches who label them as insubordinate and other inappropriate names usually all because of the DEMAND For HIGH PERFORMANCE RESULTS. Those coaches striving to coach for child development on all levels please stay on the journey. Parents please be strong for your kids too.

Eutaw Street Sprinters
7 years ago

The most successful coaches are the ones with the happiest swimmers. It’s called a “Dictatorship” for a reason

Mike Lewellyn
7 years ago

Oh, one more thing. Swimmers do not have the ability to make choices because they do not have the experience or knowledge to make proper long term judgements. They cannot make the choices that will lead them to their full potential. They have no concept of excellence. As my coaches taught me, Experience is the toughest teacher because it gives the test first and the lesson afterwards. By your method, children would fall short of their potential and only realize it after they could no longer do anything about it. They would choose to be single stroke swimmers because they don’t like butterfly or IM or distance.

Just Another Opinion
Reply to  Mike Lewellyn
7 years ago

I think you misinterpret the need for a swimmer to develop and exercise “agency” with immediate and complete delegation of all decisions to the swimmer at a young age.

The author acknowledges the need to plan for how much autonomy a swimmer exercises as he or she develops. That doesn’t mean a swimmer gets to stay in his or her comfort zone – but it does mean the swimmer should experience increasing engagement in the decision-making process beginning at an early age.

7 years ago

Coaches need to understand that they can and should be friends with the athletes, being manipulated in a positive way, while also get them to swim really really fast. We’re all in this together. We spend 2+ hours a day together. We can work together to produce something that we can all be proud of, while having fun in the process.

Reply to  Murica
7 years ago

Coaches should never be friends with their athletes. There is a professional relationship that is akin to a second parent, but bridging over to friendship opens too many doors for the athlete to get abused as well as the coach to be accused.

Reply to  SwimFL
7 years ago

I would never swim for you. Ever. I already have parents. If my Coach cannot approach me on my level other than beIng “a second parent” in my life then you’ve already limited my want for showing up everyday. We are not talking about getting ice cream and a movie on the weekend, we are talking about being real with an athlete. I see so many “second parent” Coaches whose swimmers are so robotic and riddled with anxiety because they’ve got no one to open up to that their whole identity becomes the sport,which is kind of sad. I love this sport, but I prefer my Coach to be knowledgable and real with me. To say “Coaches should never be… Read more »

Just Another Opinion
Reply to  Nofriendofmine
7 years ago

Have you considered that people can “be real” with you without being your friends? Or that you can have an effective relationship with someone you trust, who still isn’t your friend? Consider how people most effectively interact with doctors, lawyers, therapists, or clergy for reasonable examples in other fields.

A coach can (and IMO, should) be 100% authentic while still 100% avoiding athlete interactions on a peer basis. Respectful collaboration and friendship are two very different things. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but adolescents often exhibit difficulty recognizing the difference and confusing the two risks creating serious problems of trust, emotional impairment, and/or mental health issues – not to mention interfering with achievement of the athletic goals that… Read more »

Swim Mom Yo
7 years ago

There are some “Queen Coaches” out there too …

About Chris DeSantis

Chris DeSantis

Chris DeSantis is a swim coach, writer and swimming enthusiast. Chris does private consulting and coaching with teams and individuals. You can find him at www.facebook.com/cdswimcoach. Chris is a 2009 Graduate from the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the first professional athletic coach …

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