Coaching At Division III & I: Differences & Similarities by Mary Bolich (2002)


I am very honored and excited at the opportunity to speak here today.  What I’ll be sharing with you today is reflective of my experiences as a coach in Division I and Division III Swimming.  I want to detail specific areas that are common with coaching at both levels, and the differences that I experienced in these positions.  Presenting what I have found to be the Pro’s and Con’s of coaching at Division I & Division III.


There are many coaching opportunities in collegiate swimming.  Whether moving from Club coaching to collegiate, or Division III to Division I, or Division I to Division III it is important to know what you want and why.  I should note at this point that there are many opportunities at Division II as well, but my experiences have been in Division I and Division III and they will be my areas of focus for this presentation.



Men’s     Women’s               Total

DIV I      146         182                         328

DIV II    54           66                           120

DIV III  184         226                         410


As you look at employment opportunities it is important for you to have a sense of what is important to you professionally and personally in order to determine the appropriate fit.  There are many differences and tradeoffs to consider and be aware of when a swimming coach creates his/her career plans; this is the core of what I want to talk about today. I will identify key areas in coaching collegiately and share what I have experienced to be some differences and similarities in coaching at Division III and Division I institutions.


There are three major areas that I will focus in on and they are Coaching, Administrative Responsibilities and Recruiting.





I think, in coaching each of us is aware that within any program coaches find that student-athletes bring different personalities, commitment levels and skill levels to work with.  I believe coaching at the collegiate level allows many freedoms while at the same time imposing many restrictions.  NCAA rules and regulations, conference rules, institutional philosophy, coaching commitment and motivation all can play significant roles in deciding what strategies coaches can use and successfully implement within their programs.


In my experience, as a Division III swimming coach, I have found my freedom in terms of training to be more restricted by my conference rules than NCAA rules.  The NESCAC conference defines the season start date as November 1st, which obviously shortens our collegiate season.  Clearly, shortening our season can be viewed as a negative.  Condensing the calendar does negatively impact the initial training phase of the season.  On the flip side it creates greater leadership opportunities for student-athletes.  Returning team members tend to take responsibility for creating and implementing captain’s practices during the months of September and October.  This situation also creates more choices for the student-athletes – do they want to train at this time or participate in a fall sport, or participate in another area of interest on campus such as a school play or work on research with a professor etc… These options and choices are the backbone of Liberal Arts institutions, and a significant reality that enhances or detracts from a student-athletes training. At Division III you will find that you have some swimmers that are very committed and motivated to their sport, and others that have a greater desire to pursue other areas of interest in the off season.


An extremely positive aspect of coaching at Division III is that you will have a team of people who are swimming because they love to swim!  It may be that they love to train, or love to compete, or really enjoy the camaraderie of being a part of a team, but they are genuinely very pleased to be involved in the sport.  I think when athletic scholarships are thrown into the mix you will find some individuals lose the concept of swimming because they want to swim.  Scholarship athletes sometimes feel a responsibility to swim for the money.


I have found at Wesleyan, because of academic demands and the strong emphasis on academics in general, that my training planning is structured around the student’s academic needs.  Division III coaches need to be willing to be flexible with training times and sessions, as well as able to train a very wide range of backgrounds and skill levels.  I have people in the program that have swum year round most of their careers and others who are high school only swimmers who have never done a morning workout or doubles.  Division III coaches need to be prepared to meet the needs of the swimmers who want to train 3 – 4 doubles per week, as well as the individual who will train 5 – 6 times per week.


Willingness to be flexible and ability to meet varied needs is one of the biggest differences between my experiences in Division I and Division III coaching.  Not that one is better than the other, but coaches must recognize the differences then they can successfully create different training opportunities to maximize reaching the potential of each of their student-athlete’s talents in either environment.  I have found Division I to be more homogeneous in talent, ability and commitment.   That is not say that Division III programs are not this way, but in my opinion it is not the norm.  Kenyon is a good example of a Division III program that has a lot in common with successful Division I programs.


Within my program at Wesleyan, I have some swimmers training 9 water workouts per week and 3 strength training, and others training 5 –6 times per week. This is an entirely different approach than anything I would have ever have dreamed of taking at Division I level, but at Division III it is very effective and a good fit for my current program.  I am in the process of rebuilding a program and creating a competitive attitude at Wesleyan.  I can create an environment of opportunity and commitment similar to what we might believe exists at most Division I programs, but it can’t be forced.  Academic and philosophical considerations at Division III level significantly impact swimming training plans.


I think you will find a wide range of program differences at Division I and Division III.  By that I mean to say that you will find some Division III programs are run like Division I programs, and some Division I programs that are very similar to Division III programs.  I think that institutional support, philosophy as well as coaches direction influence the structure and success of both Division I and Division III swimming programs.




In general coaching at the collegiate level involves far more administrative work than most people might imagine.  At the Division I level the paper work required by the NCAA for the management of a team and for season and weekly training hours, as well as recruiting documentation is incredibly detailed and time consuming.  Far less paperwork is required at the Division III level.  Administrative responsibility is an area where you will find that job descriptions begin to vary greatly between the two divisions.  This is also an area where coaches, as professionals, need to decide which employment opportunities match best with their personal and professional priorities.  Division III coaches will wear many hats professionally.  In comparison at Division I, if “coach” is your title, for the most part that will be your sole responsibility and focus.  At Division III, titles might include head coach for two teams, aquatics director, teacher (for several classes per semester), and/or serving as an assistant, associate or athletic director.  An additional area of responsibility, at the Division III level, is fundraising.  A typical example of fundraising need is to supplement the expense of winter training trips.


One of the things that made Division III attractive to me is the opportunity to teach classes again.  While at Penn State I taught in the Exercise Science department and very much enjoyed the interaction with the regular student body and faculty.  When I went to the University of Iowa to coach they did not want me to teach.  It was clear to me that I was there to focus primarily on my coaching responsibilities; as a result, I was unable to reap the benefits of that kind of interaction with the regular student body.


Another aspect that attracted me to the Wesleyan position was decreased emphasis on recruiting at the Division III level.  When I arrived at Iowa I was in a position that required me to rebuild the program.  As a newly hired Division I head coach I spent an incredible amount of time recruiting.  I felt I was not able to focus as much time as I would have liked on other areas of coaching and team management.

One of the reasons that I made the switch to Division III is because there is less emphasis on recruiting and that circumstance creates a more desirable coaching situation for me.  This is an example of why I encourage you to have a good sense of what is important to you so you are better able to identify what you are looking for so that you can be satisfied and fulfilled professionally.


As I describe the many hats that Division III coaches wear and varying responsibilities at the Division III level you will find that Division I coaches tend to have a much more narrow and intense focus in terms of expectation and performance for both coaches and student-athletes.  You will find that typically Division I programs have greater availability of resources in terms of facilities and budget.  Division I programs often have excellent support staff and are in a better position to attract experienced and committed coaching staffs.  When institutions provide the tools necessary to create successful programs then the expectation is that success will be achieved.  If after a period of time success is not realized then you will find that your job security may be in jeopardy.  I think you are finding this more and more in minor sports today than you ever did 5 – 10 years ago.  When resources and perks are provided to coaches and programs it is generally understood that performance is the outcome of what is being measured.  Some areas where performance is being measured are win/loss record, conference standings, national rankings, academic performance, and Sears cup standings.


In my experience as a Division I coach, I have found that I could have a greater impact on my program by having resources such as athletic scholarships, full time assistants, larger recruiting budgets, and experienced and qualified support staff.  It is important to realize that there is a greater accountability and expectation of individual and team performance once such resources are provided.  Budgets are bigger and the steaks are higher at Division I in relation to win/loss records, recruiting, conference and national standings.


I want to draw a comparison to more clearly define my thoughts regarding Division I and Division III coaching.  I want to be clear and emphasize that this has been my experience in coaching both levels, I am not speaking for all programs across the board; this is reflective of my experience.  I found coaching at Division I to be more “Black and White” and less Grey.  Division I coaches are held more accountable, but Division I coaches have more control and greater ability to make a direct and immediate impact on their programs.  Athletic scholarships, recruiting resources to attract desired student-athletes, fewer admissions challenges, less financial hurdles, support staffs that help make it work once the athlete is in the program and similarly commitment staff and team members are all examples of areas of influence and support for Division I coaches.  Another Division I advantage is year around access to student-athletes for consistent and positive influence in terms of training and team unity.  These factors greatly enhance Division I coaches ability to significantly impact their programs.



I think that in Division III there is far more “Grey” area to work within. Division III access to student-athletes is limited with shorter seasons and clearly defined start and end dates.  There is zero option for out of season training.  Often times there are limited recruiting resources to get desired student-athletes on campus, as well as limited influence with admissions and financial aid offices.  Less control over the factors that can directly impact your program leads to less scrutiny with regard to win/ loss record and overall performance.


As I stated earlier these differences are important to evaluate when you are looking for what you want from your coaching and professional career.  For some coaches, not coaching year around and having summers free from coaching is desirable.  Greater recruiting resources require coaches to make greater time commitments to recruiting efforts.  Division I coaches travel to more meets to evaluate and have contact with recruits and coaches; they also make more home visits to spend more time with recruits and their parents.  There is very little travel required for recruiting at the Division III level when compared to the Division I level.  That’s not to say that Division III coaches don’t spend a lot of time recruiting; they just spend their recruiting time differently.  Division III coaches typically make more phone calls to recruits and coaches and they spend more time on the Internet searching for meet results etc…


Division III coaching allows for more versatility.  I have found, coaching at the two different levels, that my job responsibilities at Division III have allowed more time for a personal life.   The time commitment in-season can be very demanding, but out-of-season, I have far more flexibility with the time requirements than I ever had as a Division I coach.


The multiple job responsibilities that Division III coaches tend to have results in a bit less emphasis on winning and student-athlete performance; therefore, job security is less an issue at the Division III level.  The student athlete’s perception of a positive experience rather than individual and team performance tends to carry more weight in the overall evaluation process.


This brings me to another area I would like to touch on and that is student-athlete perception of and expectations for a positive experience.   I believe that there are three major areas of a student-athletes life while they are in college:  academic, athletic and social.  I think Division I and Division III student-athletes prioritize these areas differently.  It has been my experience that Division I student-athletes place more value on individual performance in their sport when evaluating the success level of their experience as a collegiate student-athlete than do Division III athletes.  That’s not to say that Division III student-athletes don’t value their athletic performance, but in my experience they prioritize and value the academic and social aspects of their collegiate experience to a greater degree.












There are always exceptions to the rule on every team, but generally this has been my observation.




Although I have touched on the recruiting aspect of coaching several times already in this talk there are a few other points I would like to highlight.  Probably one of the most refreshing aspects of my move from Division I to Division III coaching is the recruiting differences that I discovered.  In particular, I have found that student-athletes who look at Division III schools and swimming programs take a far more proactive approach in the college search and recruiting process.  I considered this refreshing and appropriate when you consider the importance of finding the right fit for your college education and collegiate swimming career.


My interactions with the student-athletes I was recruiting to Wesleyan focused mainly on discussions about the institution, what it has to offer academically and what our swimming program is like.  I want to emphasize that this has been a two-way discussion.  Division III recruits tend to have researched and educated themselves about the schools that they are interested in attending.  I have found them very responsive to the contact I have made with them.  An example is when I call and leave a message, a large percentage of the time these recruits will return my call.  They are very reliable when it comes to returning information sheets and email messages requesting information.  Another area that they are very active with is early college research, as well as with spring and summer campus visits prior to their senior year of high school.  This is an opportunity for them to get a strong sense of the campus environment, academic and swimming programs, and facilities.   These early visits help them to narrow the number of schools they are interested in attending so they can plan their overnight visits in the fall of senior year.  I have found that Division III recruits tend to make a college selection based on the academic match far more often than because of the swimming program match.


In contrast, I found the recruiting process and the role that student-athletes chose to take quite different at the Division I level.  In general, Division I prospects tend to be less proactive in the recruiting process.  In many cases the student-athletes sit back waiting to see what schools and coaches are interested in them, and based on coaches interest they create a list of schools that they are interested in attending. The content of my interaction with Division I recruits was typically based on educating them about and selling them on the university, its academic offerings and our swimming program.  Far greater emphasis and priority was given to educating them about the swimming program.  The Division I recruits that I spoke with typically knew very little about the university outside of the swimming program’s reputation.  The contrast that I want to point out is that Division I prospects typically do very little research on the schools they are considering attending.  Much of the time prospects have the expectation that the coach will provide this kind of information.


Typically it is the Division I head coach and coaching staffs responsibility to initiate and maintain contact throughout the recruiting process.  In my experience it is rare to have a Division I recruit return a call.  The restriction of the 5 official campus visits at Division I institutions makes the contact and interaction with student-athletes crucial.  Timing, content and tenacity can be key factors in getting desired student-athletes to commit to a campus visit.  This is one of the areas where coaches will see the intensity and pressure increase at Division I level.  In some cases, Division I recruits college selection tends to be based more on the swimming match and scholarship offer than the academic match.


Coaches have many factors to consider when deciding which employment opportunities to pursue at the collegiate level.  The greatest resource you have for accurately determining the right direction for you is knowing what your personal and professional priorities are.  When you clear about your priorities and preferences then you are better able to find the best coaching fit for you.



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