Well, first of all, thank you to Ira for the introduction, I appreciate that. Before we get into the meat-and-potatoes of what I wanted to talk about, I also wanted to offer a thanks to John Leonard and the ASCA board and the staff at ASCA for hosting this clinic. I have been fortunate enough to attend this clinic off-and-on since 1989 when I began coaching at the Pleasanton Seahawks. And the amount of information that gets shared here is tremendous. I always learn a lot when I get here; sometimes I just pick-up little nuggets, sometimes it validates things that I am already doing, and a lot of times I get some great, new information. I am a firm believer in continued education, so I want to thank the staff at ASCA for having us here. Hopefully you guys are all enjoying New Orleans. I want to welcome you all and thank you all for being here.
Like Ira said, my name is Todd Tucker and I am the Head Age Group coach and a Senior group coach with the Pleasanton Seahawks. We are in Northern California, the East Bay; we are about 30 miles outside of San Francisco. What I wanted to do before I get into everything is just kind of give you a very quick snapshot of the history of where we have been, just so you have a baseline understanding of where my perspective is coming from.
So with that said, our history: when I started in 1989, I did not start the program, it was already started. But at that time we were in a 6-lane, 25-yard, outdoor, high school pool; and we had a separate 12½-by-12½-yard diving tank. If you can get your hands on a diving tank, somewhere, you should do it because we had great success teaching out of that diving tank. And we were around 50 to 60 members, somewhere in that realm.
Before I joined the Seahawks staff, I was working with a summer-rec program in the area. And one of the girls that I brought over to the club, her name is Keri Thorn, her father, Jerry, spearheaded a grassroots campaign in our city to get a 50-meter facility funded and built. And that was a successful campaign; that came on-line to us, umm mid-‘90s—early-‘90s, mid-‘90s, somewhere in that range. So we had an opportunity to grow and develop the program based on that.
So where we are right now is we are sitting in a 50m facility. And they built that pool on an existing aquatic center, which had a separate 25m pool and a diving tank—it is currently being remodeled right now. But we have about 350-or-so year-round athletes, and we run a Fall swim program on-top of that of between 40 and 50 kids. So we are going to be, this Fall, probably around 350-400 athletes.
Obviously, multiple training groups; but we are at one facility. I think that has really, really been a key element for us so far, as we have grown from 50 to 350-400, in that it has been a lot easier for us to kind of maintain the integrity of the day-to-day operation. We are not scattered around a bunch of different facilities; there is a lot of contact with the coaching stuff on a daily basis, which for us works pretty well. So that is kind of where we are at and kind of where we are coming from.
That parent has actually since gone on, ran a successful campaign for city council. Ran a successful campaign for mayor; he is actually the mayor of our city now. And we have another former president who is actually on our city council. So any time you can get those politically connected people in your corner, that is always a good thing. So if you learn nothing else today, learn that—it is helpful.
Some great information from Dr. Schloder, and the tack that I am going to take today is just a little bit different. I will be speaking tomorrow a little bit more about the nuts-and-bolts of what I do with Age Group kids in their preparation; but today I am going to talk a little bit more about connecting with the kids and some of the things that I have found have worked for me in connecting with athletes. I think that… when I was asked to speak here, I really did not know what I was going to talk about. So I asked some colleagues and some friends, and they said that… I was very flattered to hear that they thought I did a decent job of connecting with the athletes and they wanted to hear a little bit more about that. So that is what drove this topic today, and that is where we are at.
But as I move forward with these different ideas, I just want you to try and keep in mind the spirit of the talk. And that is: how do I apply these thoughts to the connectivity of the athletes; how does it help me to engage with my athletes? Some of them will be obvious, some of them will be very obvious performance enhancing ideas. But really, at the end of the day, Age Group coaching is about connecting, it is about engaging, it is about teaching, it is about improving. And I think that if you can always keep that perspective, you really cannot miss.
I think the very first thing that we need to be cognizant of as Age Group coaches is the environment. And whether you like it or not, you have an environment. Great clubs are responsible for creating that environment. They take it, they mold it, they really pay attention to how they are creating an environment for their athletes to be in. And that is everything from the physical environment to the emotional environment, the psychological environment. I think it is very, very important that you are in charge of that: do not let it just happen, okay. You need to be in charge of your dynamic.
I think first and foremost, I try and create an environment that allows the athletes to feel free to fail. I want to be a supportive environment; I want to be a challenging environment. I want it to be an environment that faith, both physically and emotionally. But I believe that if your athletes are free to fail and try new things, they are going to take risks that they might not otherwise take. If you have an environment that stifles that, I think that they are not going to as willing to take risks. And great athletes, great coaches, great leaders take risks. And I think that helps us to foster an environment where our young kids are willing to try things and do things out of the norm.
I think that kids learn to succeed through failure. I think as adults, we learn to succeed through failure. I believe in giving kids what I call the gift of failure. They have to learn how to fail with grace; how to learn from those experiences. And I think it is really, really important that young athletes understand the value of failure. So I cannot stress that enough: the environment is going to help to create that.
I believe you have to have a consistent environment. And from a consistent environment, certainly your coaching personality. I think that you have to coach your personality, guys. I have seen a lot of things over the years, and I have seen people try and emulate somebody that has been very successful. And you might have a good go of that for a while, but eventually you are going to have to rely on your instincts. There are going to be too many opportunities dealing with young kids where you have to rely solely on your instinct; and if you have been acting one way and then you have to respond in-the-moment a different way, you are really going to lose some of the power that you might have in terms of truthfulness and integrity with your athletes. So I think at all costs, you have to find what works for you. Okay?
I am very comfortable in my skin. And I thank Steve for allowing me—Steve is our head coach, Steve Morsilli—and he has allowed me to grow into this role. And he has been very generous to me and he has taught me a lot, but he has always given me room to be me. We are very different personalities and he would not expect me to coach in his mold, and I appreciate that. And I think the best coaches find what works for them and stay within their personality.
I think you need to have a stable business environment. Your environment needs to be such that when you are on the deck, you are just coaching; you are in that moment with them. You should not be worried about the day-to-day operation. You should not be worried about your board meeting later-on that night. You should not be worried about what you have to justify to your president later that night.
Some of you guys maybe coached-owned/coach-run, and that can bring some joys and it can bring some headaches. Some of you are board-run. All different dynamics: big, small, large; whatever it is, it needs to be stable.
Are there head coaches in here? Head coaches, you probably recognize the importance for your younger staff that when you want them on deck, you want them coaching; you do not want them worrying about the stuff. Age Group coaches, younger coaches that are developing that, I think that you need to appreciate the fact that your head coaches have put you in that environment. They work tirelessly to give you a structure. And if you are not doing that, you should.
So I think your business model needs to be consistent. If nothing else, just to free you up to be the person that you are.
I think that you need to create an environment where success is inevitable. It is inevitable by instilling discipline and creating standards: philosophical standards, training standards that your kids need to perform every day. At the end of the day, for us at Pleasanton, it is about the day-to-day process; it is not about the results. I believe results are a by-product of what you do in practice. So I really believe in trying to train with integrity and to excellence, every day; and I think we need to pay attention to that more during the week—even more than I do at competitions. If they are doing what they need to do in practice, it is going to show-up where it needs to show-up, most of the time.
I think that in terms of developing an environment… are Ron or Don Heidary from Orinda Aquatics in here? Perhaps Steve? They do a tremendous job. I am fortunate that I coach in that area, and I have had the pleasure of working with Ron and Don for a number of years. But they have a character-first mentality, and they really do create that environment—that is not lip service. If you have ever had the pleasure of working with those guys, you are very fortunate. If you have not, you should shoot them an email, and you should try and find time to talk to them. They are excellent at environment; probably the best I have seen.
I think you need to foster a competitive environment. It sounds sort of silly, we are all here learning how to be better coaches and we are all certainly competitive guys, and it is USA Swimming: we are a competitive lot of people. But your environment needs to be competitive every day. I want my kids going fast, racing, having fun; every day. Okay. I think you need to foster that. There are different ways that you can do that. You can structure your lanes so that you are kids get an opportunity to swim next to somebody instead of following them. Different things that you can do, but find ways to foster competiveness in your program.
I do not believe in pitting kids against each other: so-and-so is doing this, so you need to do that, that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is: kids are inherently competitive, most of them, and they need to have an opportunity to be competitive every day in practice.
I think you need to teach tradition and build tradition. Show of hands real quick: how many of you guys out there consciously build your tradition? Have programs in place to build tradition. I know Santa Clara does, right; you guys have a great tradition. How many people just are not really sure of their tradition, and kind of want to learn how to build it? I think that is a critical step guys; it is really important.
Your kids want to feel like they are in an environment that they are proud of, and there are a lot of different ways to do that. It can be the physical environment: throwing the banners up on the walls, right, and doing the obvious stuff that most clubs do. But I think you need to take it a step further. I like to I like to design sets that teach our team’s history. And what I mean by that is: maybe we will do a set, or I will put a relay together where I explain that at the time this was a National Age Group Record that we set or it was a Pacific Swimming record that we set—11+12 Boys 800 Free Relay, whatever it is.
And then what I will do is maybe have some of my younger kids try to beat that. Now they might not be able to beat it in the form of straight 200s, but if they are all going 25s from a dive, little kids might be able to get on top of that. But it engages them. It is a fun way to teach those kids:
- about the success that you have had in the past;
- it gives them an idea of how fast those guys were really going when they did that; and
- they have a good time.
So, find creative ways to teach it.
I do a parka exchange program. In our area we have summer-rec programs, and we get a lot of growth off of our summer-rec program. They feed into what we call our Fall program. So what I do is: when athletes leave our program, I will ask them if they would donate-back their team parka. And I have a little caveat: when I get those parkas, I want them to include a little index card is a ziploc bag. And that index card is going to have their memories of being in this organization; some of the successes that they had.
And then what I do is when I have these new athletes that I am trying to engage and get involved in the program, I will loan them a parka when they first joined the team—day 1. It is cold, they do not have a parka yet, and now they are instantly in a team parka. Granted it says Chris Breitbart on it—but Chris Breitbart had a great history with us. They reach in the pocket, they pull out the index card and they are instantly connected to some of our history. Saves them a little money until they buy their own parka, keeps them warm.
That is a simple thing to do. I think I have an inventory of like 90-100 parkas at this point. And it is easy: they are on loan and then they return them when they are done. And then the next wave of parkas comes in. So, just little things like that that you can do, that really help to teach tradition, it is going to help you connect with those athletes.
I think you need to get your older kids involved with the younger kids wherever possible. Now I respect the boundaries of… listen, our Senior athletes have a pretty-busy schedule with homework loads and training loads and morning practice; and it is difficult to impose on them to make a presence known to our younger kids. In our environment, our little kids do not swim at the same time as our older kids: our older kids are in the afternoons, younger ones come in the evening. Half the time they do not even see each other. That is not a good dynamic.
So I put programs in place to make sure that those kids are connecting. I do a junior coaching program—I am going to talk about that a little bit later. Any of you guys doing like a junior coaching program or… yeah, if you are doing that, that is great—great stuff. The results that I have had from that—I will talk about that a little bit later—are just simply staggering. You are creating heroes within your group, teaching the traditions of your team. Okay? I want generous athletes in my program. So that is an easy way to connect those younger kids to the older kids.
Intersquad meet. Run an intersquad meet. We did one in August, early August; we just dropped stop watches—just drop them, just race. Let’s just get together and race. If you can get to your older kids to help run that meet, facilitate that meet; and allow your younger ones to experience those older kids, that is great stuff. So, get creative, that is my point. Okay? Building tradition is critically important, and I think you need to build that at the USA Swimming level as well. The use of stories, videos. USA Swimming does a great job putting stuff out to us, tap into that.
Any question so far about environment? I am sure that this is not news to you, and a lot of the stuff that I am going to talk about is not new. I think it is a matter of just consistent application. I have stolen every idea that I have, I think, at one point or another. But I am not afraid to take something new and try it and see how it works. But the environment that you create is bigger than you can possibly imagine.
Okay, no questions about that. Any ideas that you guys have that you want to throw up, about creating tradition? Yeah?
[audience member]: The third Friday of every month, we do something called Fun Friday where we get all of the kids together and we invite brothers and sisters and friends or whatever. And we get the older kids teaching the younger kids, so they get experience doing swim lessons, and the kids get to work on technique or whatever, breaststroke. We do a half an hour of that and then do a half an hour of organized play and relays and stuff like that, and then we do half an hour of just racing. Most of the kids go to the pools to swim laps all the time, they do not get the chance to play so much.
[Tucker]: Right, and it frees them up to connect a little bit. I do not if you guys all heard that, but basically Fun Friday is where they are bringing in a lot of cousins, friends, family. All team members have a little bit of free time to play, have a little time to socialize, and then they do some structured stuff. Great, great idea. And you probably have had great results from that.
Educating expectation (I am going to move on here). You need to know what your program expects. You need to know what they expect from a behavioral standpoint; you need to know what they expect philosophically. Okay? You need to know, and you need to teach it, and you need to teach it early.
You can really run ahead of the game here, in terms of educating your athletes and your parents. What I mean by this is: you do not wait until there is a situation to teach your philosophy; your philosophy needs to be taught from day one, when there are no emotions involved. This is what we do, this is how we do it, this is our expectations. So that when something comes up… and guys it does not matter, who you are, how long you have coached, you are going to have issues. Anybody ever had an issue? Right? It really, really helps when you have got that history: the tracks are laid, the ground work is there. Listen guys, we are on the same page; mom and dad, we are on the same page, this is how we operate.
In our organization I get a lot of the… I handle the placement of new members and new athletes. And almost every phone call I get, from athletes that transfer into our organization or start with our organization, is: how long are the practices, how much yardage do they do, dah da-dah da-dah. And before I will answer that question, I say: “Hold on; this is how we operate.” And I do not give them the entire dissertation, but I give them a snapshot and an overview of our structure philosophically. And then I will talk about workout structure, okay.
It is a very subtle way to get to those parents that I have a higher priority than how many times your kid goes back-and-forth in the pool. I want them to go back-and-forth with purpose, with integrity, with class; in the philosophy that we design. So that is an important thing. I do that almost every phone call. And very rarely do I get a person that will call me up from another program and say: what’s your philosophy? It does not exist.
Training. You need to have a training philosophy. And I am not talking about, you know, your set design—I believe you have to have a philosophy there too. But I want my kids to train a certain way, with a certain presence. I want them generous. I want the knuckle bumps underneath the lanes. I want to see somebody reach over lanes and pat somebody on the head in between repeats when they are getting crushed. I want to hear jokes being told as they walk to the locker room. I want them to train a certain way.
And that is important. Whatever that looks like for you. I believe that they need to train under the philosophy of your program; whatever that looks like.
I think your athletes need to expect that it is going to be group-level appropriate. Meaning, if they are swimming in a pre-Senior program, they need to behave like pre-Senior athletes. If they are Senior-level athletes, they need to behave like Senior-level athletes. Okay? And they need to know what those distinctions are as they move from level to level.
One of the things that we do in Pleasanton is we do group visits with our kids. If I have a child that is preparing to move from our Junior program into what we call our Pre-Senior program, we are going to start with some group visits. That kid is going to drop-into those Pre-Senior practices once a week, for a couple of weeks, maybe twice a week for the next couple of weeks, and then they transition-in completely. You know, we will have it set so that when the end of the season comes, that is when they make that transition. It is a great way for the coach that is receiving a child to have some connectivity with that kid, some history with that kid, before that transition takes place. It is a great way for those young athletes to kind of get a snapshot of what is coming. Okay, we have had great success with group visits. And we have been doing that for forever.
Does anybody do something similar like that with their kids? Kind of prep them to go? I found this a little bit more appropriate than just flipping the switch.
Now sometimes we have to flip-the-switch. You have a situation come-up and this kid has got to move for whatever reason. Maybe I misplaced him when I originally had him; flip the switch and go—sometimes that happens. But in a perfect world….
I believe in praising, at the Age Group levels, their effort. I do not believe in false positives; I think that you need to be honest with your kids. But I think there are ways to be very, very honest with your kids and still be positive with your kids. I do not believe in telling a kid that they did a good job if they did a crappy job. I will find a way to positively encourage that kid to do better.
Same thing with performance: I think that your kids need to perform under the same philosophy that you have for your program. I believe it is a by-product. If they train a certain way, they are going to perform a certain way. So at the end of the day our program is about teaching life skills through the sport of Swimming; that is really what it comes down to. I want them to strive to be better, but I want them to do it in a certain way.
Questions about that? Now a lot of these concepts, guys, I am just kind… I mean probably every one of these little areas you could talk about for hours, and that is not my intent here. Just going to throw some ideas out, get a couple of bullets to you, and then we can talk about it at the end of each segment or at the end of the presentation. I will give you guys my email address, you can certainly email any questions or concerns or thoughts, okay. Alright.
Next component I want to talk about is trust. I think that when we are talking about trust this maybe the most critical aspect of dealing with kids. Kids are incredibly smart and they are incredibly intuitive. And they are going to see things that you do not even know that they see. You have to be trustworthy. At the end of the day, you need to know that your kids are looking at you as a role model.
They are going to need to trust your knowledge. We need to remain students of our craft; that is why all we are here, to learn. Your students need to trust that you know what you are saying. You have an obligation to your kids to stay sharp and stay focused and stay up-to-date on our sport.
I think that you should do club visits. If you have an opportunity to visit a club, get off-deck for a couple of days and go visit—incredible learning takes places. Even if it is just local. I mean we are blessed that we have a lot of wonderful clubs in our area. You do some club visits, spend a day or two with them, you will learn an incredible amount. And it gives you another contact, another resource, to share ideas and bounce ideas off of.
There is a club in our area, Osprey Aquatics, run by Brian Bolster. (Brian Bolster’s down here in the front: good to see you Brian.) Brian is an incredibly intelligent coach; he is a very conscientious coach; he does a tremendous, tremendous job with his athletes. I am happy to call him a friend as well as a colleague. But at the end of the day, Brian and I sit and talk a lot—we talk a lot—about Swimming and life. It is a great connection; I appreciate his friendship. I appreciate his ability to share; he is one of the most generous coaches I know. Sorry Brian, but if somebody sends you an email, you deserve it. Shoot this guy an email and talk to him. But find ways to connect with other people. Okay?
You are going to need to know that your athletes are going to trust your preparation. I do not believe in showing-up on the deck and just winging it. I do not believe at the Age Group level you necessarily have to have your work out written in stone; I believe that there has to be engagement and you are just as much a pied piper as you are a swim coach, at the Age Group levels. Certainly along the way it changes. But you have to understand that whatever your goal is, you need to be prepared to teach that. Some of you need to list your workout, some do not. Find what works for you, but be prepared. Kids will know when you are winging it.
They need to trust that you are going to be professional. They need to know… are you the coach that at the end of a meet will walk by the head ref and thank them for his time? When an official approaches you with a challenge or a DQ, are you going to just immediately challenge and get in their face, or are you going to be thoughtful and inquisitive? And we have all been there, guys, okay. We are emotional people; we are competitive people. But you have got to be professional.
And your kids are going to see how you respond to those situations, and you need to be mindful of that. If I expect my kids to be thoughtful and analytical and go through proper channels, I need to model that whenever I can. Does that kind of make sense? And again, they see it; they really do see it. Your actions have to be consistent with what you are telling them.
We are going to talk about communication in just a little bit, but they are going to trust that you have the ability to communicate. We are a jack-of-all-trades here guys: we have coaching obligation, we have fundraising, we have board member meetings, we have city council meetings; whatever it looks like for you. Many of us have straight jobs as well. We have got a lot of obligation.
I need to be able to communicate at a lot of different levels. The way I talk to an 8-year-old is not the same way I talk to a 12-year-old. And you need to be able to morph and adjust. You need to know the appropriate energy levels when you are dealing with those kids. Young kids… those that coach Age Group, you are a remarkable breed. It is amazing the energy that you folks pour into your kids, and you need too. It is just dealing with kids—I have got three children of my own, I am living it, I know. Okay?
I think… this is important: they need to trust your instincts. If they come to you with an issue, if they come to you with a situation, that you are going to be relying on instincts. If you have been faking-it, like we talked about earlier—coaching like somebody else—your instincts are not going to be true. They need to trust that.
So I try and avoid a lot of the knee-jerk reactions to situations. I will take a step back. I am not a yeller; I am not a screamer. Anybody who knows me knows that if kids are having an issue, I am usually going to step-back a little bit and figure out what is going on. I try and go after the situation before I go after the athletes. Certainly you have to lower the hammer sometimes, and I get that. But there is a lot of things that, maybe situationally, I can do differently that are going to interfere and steer that in a different direction.
How you respond instinctually is going to dictate how those kids approach you later. If you respond professionally and within your character, you really cannot miss.
Communication. Basically, four pieces that I want to talk to about briefly. Number one, I just said it, the common thread between all great coaches is they have an ability to communicate, at a lot of different levels. Okay?
At the end of the day as an Age Group coach you must make contact with every athlete, every single day, preferably multiple times. How many of you have very large groups that you train? Yeah. Keep attendance after you talk to them. For a while I had, you know, a fairly-large group and I wanted to ensure that I was connecting with every kid every day: I would not mark them off on my attendance sheet until I spoke to them, gave them the correction, whatever it was.
Put it on the back of your workout, keep a running total; whatever it takes for you, you have got to find a way to talk to everybody, every day. And if you are not doing that, I think you are going to have some serious, serious problems at some point down the road. I try and get to my kids multiple times a day. For some of you, that is very easy to do: you are very skilled at that. For some of us, we need to work at that. But you must make contact, every practice, every day.
Some of the things that I will do to ensure that I have contact with kids. I have always done knuckle bumps or handshakes at the end of practice. I do not believe that they need to come and necessarily shake my hand; I will give them a knuckle bump, a fist bump. They are free to go to shake Steve’s hand, thank him for being here; they are free to go give Coach Brian a fist bump; you know Coach Joe, walk over. My kids have to make contacts with one of our coaches, every day. A lot of times, our dryland coaches—we have a dryland trainer that comes and helps us. My kids are always going over there, thanking: Thank you, Dan. I think it is really important. Again, I used to mark them off of my attendance sheet so I knew I was not missing any.
I want to talk about verbal versus non-verbal. I think a common mistake that coaches make is to minimize the impact of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication like: facial expressions, gestures, body language. Showing anger, frustration, happiness, whatever, have a profound effect on your athletes. You can be saying one thing and looking another way, and they are reading your body language more than they are reading what you are saying. The bottom-line is: young swimmers assume that non-verbal cues are more revealing of a coach’s actual feelings and thoughts than their words. You have got to understand that. Certainly, verbal is vital and what we say is important. But if it does not jive with your body language, there is going to be a disconnect and young kids most often are going to read your physical cues more than the verbal stuff.
I think I was guilty of this for a long, long time, in that: some coaches talk too much. You can over-coach, you really can. The kid does not need to know the history of the backstroke turn; just teach him the damn turn. [laughter] They do not need to know that I used to do the spin turn, right. They do not need that; what does it matter? In a different environment maybe that is a fun way to teach tradition, but they do not need that. I think that is really important. And sometimes when you talk too much, you are going to lose some of the effectiveness of it—that just a fact. Especially during practice: they do not want to hear you all the time, okay; even little ones.
Listening. Obvious guys; this is not earth shattering stuff here. But you have got to listen to what your kids are saying, and read their body language more than what they are saying. You have got to know as a coach, you have got to kind of recognize when things are going well and when the things are not. You have got to have that instinct. And sometimes you put a well-placed word or a well-placed phrase in, it can change the dynamics of a practice. But you have got to have that skill and that instinct: when do I say something and what I am going to say. You slip something in there, right? But you have got to listen to them when they are talking.
And I think that respect comes into play here. Again, your response to them is going to dictate how they approach you in the future. Okay? So you need to be mindful of that. Especially those young ones: you want to be a resource for them, you want them to feel comfortable coming to you with questions and excitement. You know, if I have a kid that is playing soccer and he scored a goal last weekend, I want to know about that. I do not want him to come to me and tell me that they scored a goal and say Listen, you are swimmer; I don’t want to talk about soccer. I want them to feel comfortable coming to me and sharing those things.
I think that a lot of the athletes that have come through our program… it is funny, for the first you know twenty years, I was really working with very young swimmers, always 12&Under—always. And I was very proud of the fact that even when these kids were heading-off to college, I had a great relationship with them. And that was fun for me as a coach, because I think I had a decent relationship with them; I think I made a connection on a level above swimming. At least that is what I like to tell myself I think. But that is rewarding for me as a coach: it motivates me and it keeps me excited. Certainly, I think it is helpful for those kids.
The implications here are very clear: what you do is far more important than what you say.
Thoughts or questions about that? Very good.
I want to talk about visual cues; some of the things that I think are important for young kids. Memory tags. I call them memory tags; I do not know where I stole this from, I do not know where the name came from. I think it might have being within your organization, Steve may have used a phrase like that. But I call them memory tags, and it is basically a quick visual cue that has a specific history attached to it. A hand signal, okay?
When you are talking about connecting with athletes, I do not want to just be able to connect to them when they are on the wall breathing, and stepping on their water bottles. I want to be able to connect with them in the moment; I want to connect with them while they are training, while they are in the middle of the set, while they are in the middle of the pool. So a lot of times what I will do is I will give a specific hand signal, and it might mean a specific skill.
If I have an athlete that is struggling with early-vertical forearm on freestyle—high-elbow catch, whatever you want to call it. I would demonstrate with that athlete: this is what this means. When you see me standing on the deck, doing this, that tells you that you need to be mindful of your early-vertical forearm. If I want my kids breathing every third stroke, I may give them a visual cue, maybe it is tapping my chin. It is tag, so all they have to do is when they are looking at the side of the pool, they will see me point at them and do something, and I am with them and they know I am with them. That is a great connection with kids. I do not have to wait until they repeats ends, and go over and try to have twenty conversations. It is a very quick and instantaneous. You can also do auditory cues; a lot of you guys do this already. But I think visually is very, very helpful.
If you are not using video, you are missing a huge opportunity. Even with Age Group of kids, drop a video camera on those kids, you are going to be shocked what you see. Anybody put video on young Age Groupers? Holy Christ; it is incredible, right? It is incredible. They need to see themselves, and it is helpful for you to see what you are actually teaching—or not teaching, as the case maybe. I think video is a great way to teach mechanics.
Speaking of mechanics, since I mentioned it: Steve Haufler is in the room. I do not think there is a finer coach in terms of teaching technique than Steve; I have learned a lot from Steve. But he does a tremendous job teaching foundations for fast swimming. (So Steve, thank you, for the insights that you provided over the years; I appreciate that.) Again, I steal all the time guys; stealing ideas. And, hopefully, we can give you some to think about. Use video.
This is critical for age group kids: your demonstrations have to match what you are saying. Okay? It is so important. If I am telling a child I want early-vertical forearm, I better make sure that what I am actually doing is demonstrating that. I want early-vertical forearm [demonstration as well]. That is not… this is what they are seeing. They are visual; this is what they are going to key into.
You need to make sure that you practice what you are teaching. My wife thinks I am the biggest dork ever—she knows I am the biggest dork ever—but I will stand in front of the mirror—you know, we have a full-length mirror—and I will just work on things. I try and get perspectives on when kids are down below me what it is going to look like; I will pull them up to my level, right, so I know that what they are seeing is actually what I am explaining. It does not make a whole lot of sense to demonstrate something that does not match what you are saying. Your visual cues have got to match, so practice that skill. And your wife will think that you are a dork too—and you can be in the dork-estra, as my son says, with me. (Yes, I am in the dork-esrta.)
You have got to use your older athletes. Again, recognize the demands of the Senior schedule and the limitations that you have, but I think you are smart to build those things into your program. Sometimes, just a quick visual. Look I have a kid that is struggling with a specific… simple streamline; maybe kids are struggling with streamline. Okay, come here. Three lanes over I have got a National-level kid swimming. Come over here, look; see it, do that. Okay, use that; use those opportunities that are in your area all the time. It helps to create heroes within your organization as well. So visual cues are important.
Verbal, we are not going to talk too much about, except a few points. Number one: paint the picture positively. If I want a child to hold their breath for three strokes off the wall, that is what I am going to tell them: I want you to hold your breath for three strokes off the wall. I am not going to tell them: Don’t breathe off the wall. Because if I tell them that, that is what they are picturing: not breathing. Don’t breathe off the wall has a very different picture than Hold your breath for three strokes off the wall, and you would be amazed how much more quickly the kids will key-into what you are saying. So I think that what you say has to be painted in a picture that really illustrates what you want it to look like.
And again that is a practiced skill; there are some things that are difficult to explain that way. The more advanced your athletes are, the more difficult that might be. So you have got to find ways to talk; you have got to develop a language that is going to help you convey, in a positive manner, what you are trying to teach. Does that make sense, right?
Again get to their level. We already talked about that; I think that is important. If you are working with little kids, get them up on the deck when you talk to them, get on your knees, talk to them. Whatever it looks like, but get to their level, okay.
Know your limits with your kids. Attention spans are vastly different from 8 years-old to 9 years-old; 9 years-old to 10 years-old. Be quick, be concise, be repetitive: those are things that I do that really help me with the younger groups. And avoid the over-coaching that I think some of us are guilty of.
Content. We already talked about knowledge, right? Knowing what to say is certainly important—I am not discounting that. But the content, I think this is a critical step. It should be systematic. Your system, your club, should have a systematic way of talking. And the reason I say this, in the text of connecting with your kids, is this: if I have an athlete that is preparing to shift from my group to the next level group, or from a group into my group, it is an instant connection when I want to tell that kid, maybe we are working on a certain drill, it has the same name as what they learnt it as.
Early-vertical forearm, whatever it is, I want it to be the same. So when that kid comes into my program and I say Hey, little Johnny, you need to work on early-vertical forearm, he is going to know that is what he has been taught already. It is a good way to connect right away with that kid; they put a little bit more faith in you because it is familiar. So those key issues, in terms of developing your younger kids, I think you really need to work on terminology. Whether it be calling your drills the same things, could be just the verbiage that you use, but you have got to have a certain language that I think is helpful and consistent.
Certainly written communication is critical. Emails, newsletters, bulletins. I put bulletins on the… we have little coach’s boards, sometimes I will put stuff up there: test results, whatever it is. Just find ways to get the content out to them. We have little mail boxes in our pool, every kid has got a hanging file folder, put information in there for them. I do think it is important when kids are trying to transition from group-to-group that they have that continuity.
Goal setting is a great way to connect with a kid. Most of us think… I am sure that everybody here uses goal setting, yes? Nobody does? There you go. If you do not use goal setting, I think you should. Not just in the sense that you need to know where you are driving the bus and where you are taking this group; but it is a way for you to have a conversation with your athletes, early, about your program and about you and about what they are trying to accomplish. It is a connection: it is another opportunity for you to work with that athlete one-on-one.
The problem with goal setting, guys: it is time consuming. Tracking and following-through is the crucial step when it comes to goal setting. I want those kids to know that when we set goals they are going to be track-able. Great athletes, they set immediate goals: every set, every repeat, everyday they are setting a goal. But you have to track it and follow through with that.
If you are smart, you will put systems in-place to help you do that. We have a system, we use what we call split sheets. And split sheets for us, we have race results with different splits and a sections for comments. At the end of each meet, we circulate that amongst our staff; every staff gets to look at it. You are looking at splits, you are looking at comments. If a kid hit a goal, you mark that in the comments at the meet; and then when you review that information later, you make your notes and take it to practice. Have your kids come to you. Tell you, after every meet, they self-evaluate: yeah, I hit this goal. But you have got to recognize it, okay. And you need to make sure that you are following-through and providing them with some feedback,
But I really like the way it helps you to connect with kids. New kids to your group as well as those that have already been in your group, it is an opportunity to re-establish a connection. So that is a really good way to kind of follow-through with that.
Using your goals to teach your philosophy. Again, kind along what we just talked about.
Building-in opportunities. Building-in opportunities to connect with the athletes on your team. Some of you guys are probably pretty good at this, right. We talked a little bit about the programs that you are running on Friday nights: Fun Friday nights. Some of the things that I think are helpful. Certainly group visits—we talked about that already. Preparing your athletes to shift from one group to the other is a good, built-in opportunity to connect with the kids.
I talked about the junior coaching model—I will explain this a little bit further. Basically what I do is on Friday nights, 15 minutes of practice for my Senior kids, what they will do is… we have got multiple Intermediate-, Pre-Junior-, Junior-level groups below us. And what they will do is: I will send a schedule out to the coaches; every week, a certain group has got the junior coaching slot. And what my kids do is they are available for 15-20 minutes on Friday night. The coach will identify maybe some weaknesses that those kids have; send them to me on Wednesday—they will send an email to me on Wednesday night, saying I have this kid who is really struggling with breaststroke pull-outs or I have this kid who really is poor on his streamlines or whatever it is. And then what I will do is that Friday those kids show-up to my practice, 15-20 minutes before the end of my workout, and we are going one-on-one with those kids and we are teaching that skill.
It is a great way obviously for the older kids to connect with the younger kids, but here is the other piece of it that is really, really valuable for me. Number one, I am connecting with the little kids that are not specifically under my primary care—if you will. But I am also connecting with my athletes: teaching them how to teach. Jeff, you are going to be working with an athlete on breaststroke pull-outs. Here are some thoughts, here are some ideas, on how you might want to teach it. It is a conversation I am having with one of my athletes; it is another connection. Now, go teach that. And it is time consuming for me: it takes a while for me to teach my kids how to teach. But it is important. And I do it systemat… it is a rolling schedule, every Friday night with my kids unless we are doing a meet or something; it is just a rolling schedule through our program. And it is a chance for me to connect with my athletes.
And here is the other secret: assign your kids a skill that they suck at, because then they get better at it too. If I have a kid that is teaching somebody how to streamline, I am going to make sure that is somebody that struggles on streamlining, so that they are aware of it. If they have to teach it, oftentimes it raises their standard. So that is something that I do with my guys.
We talked about this: end the [practice] swimmer handshake, thank a coach with a handshake. It is a fun way to connect.
Guest coaching. Ten minutes; we have a built-in gap in our program on Tuesday and Thursday, when we are transitioning from the pool to our dryland session. The kids are all getting dressed; 10-15 minutes, whatever, to get out to our dryland spot. That is 10-15 minutes for me that I can walk over to our Junior program, say hi to the kids, whatever; look at a couple of things, offer some suggestions, just say hello, whatever. That is a 15 minute window: do you know how much damage I can do in 15 minutes? I can also do a lot of good in 15 minutes.
And that is not extra time that I have on the deck; it is already there. So you have got to look at those holes that you have in your schedule and any opportunity you might have to just drop-in. You would be shocked how far that goodwill goes with little kids, and the coaching staff. It is great, sharing ideas with your coaching staff. Hey, why are you doing that? What’s going on? Right? Keep their energy up. So you have got to look at different opportunities that you have to connect with those kids.
When it comes to discipline, again I talked about this already guys: I believe in going after the situation initially. Okay, I am not saying that you cannot discipline your kids; of course you have to. The hammer falls and there is a reason for that. But at the end of the day, if there is something that structurally can change, I think those are important things to look at. I believe in disciplining in private, rewarding in public.
Again I told you earlier: I do not yell, I do not scream. I do not have the energy for that crap anymore. I work a full-time job, I have got three kids; I am not a yeller, I am not a screamer. It is not my style. I have enough on my plate to have to worry about that. But I try and avoid hurting the ego and I try and avoid hurting the dignity of an athlete. I am not afraid to have ugly conversations with my kids when it is necessary, but I do it in that realm.
I talked about avoiding the false positives. I think it is your job to catch your kids doing something right everyday. You have got to look for things they are doing right and make sure that they know it. Okay? Again, I am not going to just make an effort… he did a great job today. That is lazy coaching. If that kid had one good push of the wall with a great streamline and kick out: That was a great streamline, great kick out; good for you. Find them; find those moments and share those with your kids, to avoid rah-rah false positives.
And I believe at the end of the day you can reduce the need to discipline your athletes through your structure and your environment. If you are in control of your environment and if you are in control of your philosophy and you are living your credo, so much of the need to discipline is gone. I am not saying… guys I live in a real world with you. The kids. But if the structure is in place, a lot of those situations can be avoided earlier. Does that makes sense?
Well, I think that… in conclusion I just wanted to reiterate the importance of what you do. I am constantly in awe of USA Swimming coaches. I am telling you guys: I do not know of a more generous group of professionals. That are willing to share and willing to talk, and really collectively work together as a team to make our swimmers in our country the best in the world. And I appreciate you and I will continue to try and learn from you.
I would encourage you, if you have got nothing out of this discussion, I am sorry about that. [laughter] But I do think it is important that you take some of these thoughts and just let them bounce around your head a little bit and maybe you will get a nugget that is applicable to your particular program. For those coaches that I called-out personally, I appreciate you—I really, really do. And there are so many of you out there, but I really do appreciate your professionalism.
Are there any questions that you have that I can answer before we finish up? I know it is New Orleans dinner time and you are all anxious to get to that shrimp etouffee, but….
[audience member]: What do you mean by avoid false positives, what does that mean?
[Tucker]: What I consider a false positive is if a kid has a poor performance, I tell him good job. I do not believe that is true; I do not believe it is a good job. The effort may have been good; Good effort is a lot better than Good performance. So I am just kind of very select with my language. And if they are not doing anything good, I am going to have to find something that they are doing good. But I am not just going to tell them they did something well if they did not, okay.
If I am working on a stroke correction, and I say, “Listen, we need to concentrate on a little bit more on rotation” or maybe early catch in your backstroke, whatever it is. They demonstrate it, it is not happening, I am not going to tell them good job: they have not changed it. Okay, it was maybe an inch better, but you’ve got to go further. Right? I do not believe in just a false positive that is not there. Does that answer your question?
[audience member]: And when you fake it, they know it.
[Tucker]: They do; guys, they know. When you are faking it, they know it. These kids are smart. Well I put my email up here for you. If you have any questions or comments or concerns, or if what I said does not resonate, please feel free to reach-out to me. I welcome your advice, I welcome your insight, and I want to thank you guys for being here today. Thank you very much.
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