Coaching Excellence by Mark Schubert (2005)


Published


I cannot begin to tell you what an honor it is for me to introduce this man. He doesn’t know this, but over the 25 years of my career he has probably, actually undoubtedly, been the coach that I have most revered, most respected and probably most envied in a lot of cases. I have watched as he has compiled an incredible record of excellence, and it has been on every front and on every level. On the club level, as a club coach, it is particularly meaningful to me. He has compiled a record of excellence that club coaches in this country will chase forever – 44 National titles. It is a record that likely will never be touched. As Mark moved on to the college ranks he continued to define the word excellence, and I think he brought a lot of depth to that definition in those years. I think he added a lot of humanity to it, a lot of wisdom to it, and it became more than just performance. It became excellence as a person, and, granted it has been from a far view Mark, but I can tell you that I have watched every movement and every part of your career closely.

A young lady that has swum with us for many years is now swimming at USC and opted not to come home this summer. If you know me, I am not real thrilled about that, but when I had a chance to talk with her and ask her why, she looked me in the eye and said, “He (referring to coach Schubert) makes me believe that I can be as good as anybody in the world, and I want to find out if it is true”. With that being said, I walked away and started to consider Mark’s career, and the thing that came forward to me, that struck me, is his uncanny ability to look a swimmer in the eye or say a word or two or whisper a couple of sentences and inspire incredible confidence, and I think that is the X-factor that he has brought to his career that has helped him establish his record of excellence.

On the international scene he has been no less important to USA Swimming, and he has helped USA Swimming compile a record of excellence. It has been more than just 29 athletes that he has brought to the Olympic deck. It has been his mere presence, his persona, his reputation, his intensity when he is on that pool deck. I think it must be truly difficult for foreign athletes and foreign coaches to, in the back of their mind, know when Coach Schubert is standing on that deck, that he has had a hand in preparing the team they are about to face, and I think that translates into medals all by itself. That being said, I would like to introduce a man truly qualified to speak to you on excellence, Coach Mark Schubert.

Thanks Rick. That was a very special introduction. I enjoy these talks. Sometimes I am given subjects that I am comfortable with, and sometimes I ask John Leonard to challenge me a little bit. I asked John to challenge me with the talk, and I thought he came up with a pretty creative subject, and that is “What I Have Learned From Great Coaches”. So I am going to talk a little bit about the experience that I have had with different coaches in our country and in my life and talk a little bit about what I have learned. I am hopeful that this will spark, if nothing else, if you don’t learn anything from this, maybe it will spark you thinking about what you have learned from other coaches, how it has helped you, and how it can continue to help you.

You know what I did was, when I started to prepare for this talk, I sat down with my palm pilot and, you know, I have a coaches theme on my palm pilot, and I went through all the coaches just thinking about all the people that I have known and learned from throughout the years. And that made me feel very, very fortunate. The first person that I thought of that really probably gave me the tools to be a swimming coach was my father, and he taught me the value of hard work. He taught me the value of being thorough. He taught me the value of being detailed, but above all, he taught me the value of communication with people. I think with those skills and my desire to get into athletics, because I was never a great athlete, but I always wanted to get into athletics, I had the skills to go on and attempt to become a swimming coach. The other thing that he gave me was the example of pushing somebody beyond their comfort zone. As a coach, I think that is what we do, and I think that is why we will never be replaced by a computer because it is the coach that will push somebody to do things that they do not think that they can do or they don’t want to do. But once they do it they are so proud of themselves and so happy that they have been able to accomplish it.

I think one of the things that I have learned is to be observant. I was very fortunate in my years as a club coach and my years as a women’s college coach to always go to the men’s NCAA’s every year. I just put it on my calendar, and I went because I felt that it was probably the best learning experience and best clinic that I could attend. And for many years I was fortunate to sit at the top of the swimming stadium and sit next to Ernie Maglischo and just listen, ask questions, talk about stroke rates, talk about techniques, talk about racing strategies – a tremendous experience. Unfortunately, a lot of us do not have the opportunity to really sit and be observant. Usually, when we are involved with a swimming meet we are observing our swimmers, and we should be. That is our job. But I think it is important, whenever you have the opportunity, to go to a swimming meet without responsibility, whether it is a swim meet at your level or above the level that you are coaching, and just watch. Don’t talk, just watch. I think it is a tremendous learning experience.

I was fortunate to work for four years at the University of Texas with Eddie Reese, and he taught me a lot – a lot through observation. We would do a lot of training – the women’s team would do a lot of training. We would spend a lot of time working hard. Many afternoons we would be out there working hard for two hours, and one of the girls would stick their head up and say, “Where are the guys?” And then at the end of the practice they would all say, “What happened to the guys?” And that might happen at certain times of the year once a week or twice a week or even three times a week, and they had the feeling that they worked a lot harder than the guys. But what I came to learn was a good team meeting is just as effective as a good practice, and what he was doing was teaching. You know a challenge in our sport is we are standing on the pool deck, we give out the set, we say ready go, we correct every time they talk, every time they stop at the wall and we have a chance to get a word in edgewise, but he was teaching. He was teaching goal setting. He was teaching lifestyle. He was teaching team attitude, and he was allowing the older swimmers on his team to teach the younger swimmers on his team. Those teams worked really hard, but he really took the time to teach, and that is when I learned that a good team meeting is important. He would have the older guys talk about their experiences going fast and how they got fast and how the guys before them got fast – a tremendous learning experience.

I also learned from Eddie the importance of technique. I think as far as drills go – some drills are just very basic but always done very well. He would divide his team into groups of three and four – two older guys with two newbie’s – and have them teach each other and work with each other. Starting out at the beginning of the season doing that, it became accepted throughout the season that it is okay to correct each other, and it is okay for us to expect each other to do things perfectly. You know, that went from push-offs, to dives, to relay takeoffs. They were always working with each other to accomplish that.

The other thing that I learned from Eddie is humility, and I think I have always recognized that you know when you say a coach is great. A great coach is a guy that knows what he is doing and doesn’t blow it with a great talent. Eddie would always say something like this if I had somebody swim well. I can remember one time I was working one-on-one with Leann Fetter. We were doing some 25’s or some 50’s, and she was just looking spectacular. He walked up to me and started watching her, and he said, “Boy, she is going to make you look a lot better than you really are.” And it is so true. I have always remembered that and always reminded myself of that – that the kids make us look a lot better than we really are.

I learned a lot from Larry Liebowitz. I had an opportunity to work on the same deck with Larry for many years at Mission Viejo, Mission Bay, and then later at USC. Larry had a great saying, because sometimes I would get upset when the swimmers would get upset. You know, believe it or not, even though I am demanding, I like everybody to be happy and excited and challenged, and I don’t like it when people complain. Larry had the greatest saying about rights on the pool deck. He used to say, “Swimmers have the right to complain.” It is their right, and coaches have the right not to listen to it. And it is very true. If you are going to be somebody that is going to challenge an athlete to do something special, you can’t worry about their complaining about it. In fact, sometimes you need to smile a little bit, particularly when they get out of the pool afterwards with the big smile on their face because they accomplished something and they did something special. The other thing that Larry did so well was create challenging sets for specific individuals. He could create a set that would challenge the best swimmer on the team, and then do a basic version of it for the rest of the team that would challenge them. But he would always be thinking about once or twice a week coming up with a set that would challenge the best swimmer on the team – something that would be difficult, new, challenging, and exciting for that swimmer. He would also do a good job as an assistant of moderating me because I tend to want to challenge people all the time, and they can get real tired doing that. He used to tell me, “Mark, every once in a while it is good to just give them a set, a nice long set, emphasizing technique and just watch them. Just let them go.” Put your stopwatch in your pocket. Don’t yell at them, and when I say yell at them, I am talking about yelling at them to go. Just watch them cruise, but doing it with some excellence – a very good point.

When I first was a young coach and moved to California, I had the opportunity to go around my first year and watch all of the great coaches in California. There were so many – George Haines, Peter Daland, Don Gambril, Dick Jochums, Nort Thornton, George French, Ron Ballatore, Flip Darr – and I took a day off of practice every two weeks and went and watched a practice and just sat there and watched. Sometimes I asked questions, but most of the time I just observed. I think every year I was at Mission Viejo I went up to USC twice. If nothing else, it just inspired me to watch those guys swimming up and down the pool, and, Coach Daland I apologize, but I also used to go to UCLA.

George Haines was probably the most inspiring person to watch, and I bet probably the most inspiring person to swim for because he had such enthusiasm on the pool deck. When the workout started it was like a light bulb went on and he was onstage and he would talk to everybody. Getting in the water was a huge thing where he would start off with something like taking his belt off and flicking his belt at his swimmers or start of with a kickboard throwing contest, and he was the best at it. I saw him throw a kickboard from the learn-to-swim pool all the way over the diving well at Santa Clara, and of course all the guys there had to try and challenge themselves to do it, but nobody could do it. He always made practice fun and exciting, and it seemed like they always had a smile on their face. He had a tremendous personality. We all can’t have the type of personality he did. I think basically, he tried to make everybody feel important. I would watch a practice where there were 60 people, and I am sure that he talked to everybody at that practice. You know, he would make a big deal out of good performances that people swam. He would make a big deal out of the worst swimmers if they did something. He would know who was doing special things, and he would talk about it. He always taught, and one of the things that he told me was no matter how good a swimmer is, when you prepare a swimmer for a big event, don’t assume anything. Don’t assume that they know anything. Take care of every detail. Remind them of each important detail because they might forget, even though they know. Don’t assume anything.

I often, on national team trips, watched how he handled discipline situations. He and Don Gambril were very similar in how they handled discipline situations. I think the swimmers thought that these guys were oblivious to things that were going on. My first national team trip was at the World Championships in West Berlin, and for some reason I couldn’t sleep, so I went down to the lobby. I think it was 2 o’clock in the morning, and George Haines and Don Gambril were sitting in the lobby just talking and joking around. I asked them, “Why are you guys down here?” And they said, “Well, we are aware of a swimmer that is out and should be in his bed, and we are just going to have a little meeting with him when he gets back.” They met with the swimmer and informed him that they would really love to have him as a member of the 400 freestyle relay here at the World Championships, but, if that ever happened again, he would not be a member of that relay. And there was no more discipline problem with that person. Nobody else knew about it. It wasn’t announced. It wasn’t made a big deal of, but there was always firm discipline, yet it was quiet, firm discipline handled individually.

The other thing about George that I thought was amazing was how he handled a lot of good egos. You know, every good swimmer has a big ego, and it is hard to handle all of them, particularly if they come into conflict. I remember one time watching a practice at Santa Clara High School, and he had one of his swimmers do a get out swim. He did a fantastic 200 freestyle in something that I had never seen done before, except maybe in the finals of the NCAA Championship. This is a high school kid, so everybody gets out and they are happy. They run to the showers, and of course the kid is probably in there bragging about what he had just done. Then about 20 minutes later, I am talking to George on the pool deck and Mark Spitz walks out, and he says, “George, I want to beat that time.” So George has him get up and swim a 200 freestyle. He breaks the national high school record, and then of course he runs in and he is bragging about what he has done. He makes the other guy feel bad, so George brought the other guy out and talked to him about how well he had done and not to worry about Mark and his ego. It was just amazing how he handled that kind of situation. He made the guy feel good that Mark was trying to make him feel bad, but he still made Mark feel great because he was able to do something special.

I was very fortunate to serve on an Olympic team with Don Gambril in 1984, and I can say that Don was a friend and a mentor, somebody that would always write me little notes if our team would do something special. He always made me feel like a real coach. I felt like I was an age group coach, and this guy was encouraging me, being a mentor. I think the thing about Don was he had great organizational skills. He had a great ability to have a view of what he thought was important, and he was able to communicate it to his swimmers. I think probably one of the more brilliant coaching moves that I have ever seen at the Olympics was the preparation for the 800 freestyle relay when the United States was swimming Germany. Michael Gross was the preeminent male star of those games, and from the first day of training camp Don had talked to all six of the relay guys with his vision of how he saw the race develop and how the United States could win the race. The first three guys taking it out, getting a big lead, and the last guy allowing Michael to over-swim the first hundred and then being able to beat him on the last 50. And that is exactly how it unfolded. It was no accident. It was Don’s vision that he put in those guys minds, and he convinced them they could accomplish that. I think basically, that is what coaches do. They create a vision, they try to get the swimmers on the same wavelength as that vision, and then they work together to make it happen.

When I think of Peter Daland and his coaching, I don’t think of watching Peter when I was in high school on the deck at the NCAA’s or when I was in college on the deck of the NCAA’s. I think of Peter at the indoor pool – Peter does not allow us to call it the dungeon. It was the indoor pool. I think of him sitting there having a team meeting at the beginning of every practice, and he would be reading statistics about previous dual meets, splits, talking about individuals that had done well, talking about what needed to happen within the next week to get ready for the next dual meet or for the conference championship or for NCAA’s. A detailed plan was laid out. The other impression that I always had with Peter’s teams was that everybody was important, had a place, had a job to do. No matter whether they were an NCAA qualifier or, as the swimmer’s called it, a member of the bum squad. I think people on Peter’s teams will always have affection for Peter because he treated everybody as an important part of his team. The thing that I was impressed with was that tradition was such a big part of that team, and Peter empowered the guys to keep the tradition going year in and year out. A couple of years ago John Nabor came and talked to my team about the tradition – the things that they did, the things that they did to have fun, the things that they did to work hard – and they tried to maintain that tradition. Team pride. That was the other thing that always impressed me about Peter’s teams. Competition in practice – that is the reason that I went up there to watch. To watch great swimmers working together to improve each other and how they did it in such a fashion that they knew they were helping each other get better. Watching John Nabor and Bruce Furness go after it in workout was an incredible experience.

Dick Shoulberg. I don’t think that I have ever seen a guy get so much out of so little, and that is because he never thinks of his facility as so little. He thinks of his facility as a grand place to be, and if you have ever talked to his swimmers, they look at it the same way. The guy is so innovative with a large number of swimmers, whether he is doing vertical kicking or doing breaststroke kicking with zoomers on or having three lanes working on a distance practice, two lanes working on stroke, the freshmen over there doing vertical kicking, the guys that are hurt doing stationary bike or Vasa Trainer or doing pulleys or weights or whatever. Everything is moving, and he is the master of it all. If you have ever watched him do a long course workout, and I have had situations when I have been on the national team and he is giving the warm-up, it is always creative and different. I mean he will have guys doing 75 IM’s in a 50-meter pool, stopping in the middle or stopping ¾ of the way. If you watch him in a short course pool he has groups leaving from both ends at the same time, just so they can keep moving and nobody is standing on the wall for very long. That kind of creativity and pride – pride in the tradition of the program.

Richard Quick. I think what I have learned from him is the importance of the little things. I think as a coach he is a master of details – starts, turns, push-offs, finishes. And he has his swimmers practice them over and over again. Details are important. I also think that if you watch one of his workouts – his enthusiasm and intensity in practice – it is pretty hard not to perform well. I mean, I want to jump in and swim fast when I watch that guy coach on the pool deck. He is so enthusiastic, and the way he challenges his swimmers. I remember watching Misty Hyman at an Olympic training camp do a set of ten 50’s at race pace, and the last one was down to doing it at 30 seconds. Actually it was faster than race pace – all under 30, and the last one was at 30 seconds. He would expect people to do things that had never been done before.

Jonty Skinner. I think the main thing that Jonty gave me was when he gave me advice that it is always important to do something fast in practice every day. Not necessarily 25’s and 50’s, but a 600 yard set of three cycle sprints, and I think that was probably some of the best advice that I have ever had. The other experience that I have had with Jonty Skinner is his detail, his use of video, his helping coaches all the time, and him encouraging coaches not to be afraid to make changes if the changes are going to be good for the athlete. Sometimes we are a little bit afraid to change, particularly when we think the athlete has success.

You know, I have to say that probably as a coach, the person that had the biggest influence on me and made me want to become a swimming coach was my high school coach, and he helped me define my goals as a coach. And my goal as a coach was to give people a great experience in swimming like I had when I was in high school. He taught me the importance of a coach as a role model. We need to think about our presence, our demeanor, our enthusiasm. We need to think about the fact that there is no teacher that our students will spend more time with than their swimming coach, and in fact, at certain times of their lives, there is no parent that will spend more time with their children than their swimming coach. You are their role model. He taught me the importance of having fun in practice, and this guy would find ways to have fun in practice. We worked hard, but every week we would do something that was fun. He would come up with these crazy games. He would break a pencil into a small sliver that you could barely see, and we would play hide and seek with it. It was called dibble. The guy that was it would have the little sliver. He would go down to the bottom of the deep end, and he would hide it. Then everybody would stand on the side, and when they saw that little sliver then they would all dive in and try to get it. Well, as soon as someone dove in you couldn’t see it again, so guys were grabbing, and it was stupid, but it was fun. We loved it. We would play it for hours. We also used to play a kind of a corner tag, and what was amazing to me was on my 10th high school anniversary almost everybody from the swimming team came back, not just from my class but from the two classes before and the two classes after. And the night before the reunion one of my teammates was the high school coach at my high school, so he unlocked the swimming pool, and the whole team went in there. It was all dark. The lights were not on, and we played wall tag for two hours, and it just kind of personified the kind of fun that we had with each other in that swimming experience.

Our coach taught us how to become champions. He taught us how to strive for something that we never dreamed we could be, and most of us performed much better than we ever thought. But he had the vision. He instilled it in us, and he taught us to become champions. He taught us that everyone has a role on the team, and that every role needs to be encouraged, not just those of the best swimmers on the team. He taught me the importance of individual encouragement, and he would have little ways to encourage each individual. He would treat us as a group. He would motivate us as a group, but he would motivate us individually. In my case he recognized the fact that I kind of idolized him and some day I might want to become a swimming coach. We had an A and a B team. The A team would swim all the good teams. The B teams would swim the local, not so good teams, and that happened every Saturday morning in a local league that we had. He would actually allow me to write the lineup for those meets. Of course, one time I wrote the lineup and made some mistakes. Half way through the meet we were behind, so he had to get on the phone and call all the varsity swimmers in so that we could save the meet. I learned a little bit about that situation too – about over confidence.

Bob Bowman. I think having watched Bob on a number of national team trips, the thing that I have learned from him is the importance of a long-term plan. This guy plans years in advance – years in advance. He has a vision. He has a vision that is concurrent with the athlete that he is coaching, and he follows the plan. I think we have a national team quadrennial plan, which is great, but Bob Bowman follows the plan that is best for his swimmer, and he has done a tremendous job of that. He also has taught me the importance of short course training. Watching Bob and Murray Stevens and the way they have their program – they have a lot more short course training than a lot of us do that have long course pools available, and I think that there is a definite value in short course training as far as recovery, turns, push-offs, as well as long course training.

Walt Schlueter. Walt was a tremendous coach in the 50’s and 60’s, and I had an opportunity to work with him at Mission Viejo. His daughter swam for me. One day he came up, and he said, “Would you allow me to take two or three swimmers at a time out of your practice and just work on technique with them?” I would watch him work with those swimmers – the key phrases, the drills, the things he would do with great swimmers, people that were already national champions, that would help them to get faster. I don’t think you just teach stroke. I think stroke is like maintaining a Ferrari. You have to do it all the time. Because of the repetition of our sport, it is easy to slip back into bad habits, and he taught me the importance of individual attention in stroke technique. I have always tried to have an assistant that would focus on that. I am willing before and after practice to do that individually, and sometimes I will do it during practice. But if you have a program where you can continually do it, I think it is extremely important.

Peter Banks. What I learned from Peter is the importance of a four-year cycle and ignoring some meets. I don’t really mean ignoring, but not worrying about some meets, swimming through some meets, and developing the confidence in your champion that you can swim through some meets and some years in order to have success in the most important years. I think what he did with his swimmer in that regard was amazing, and you could watch it happening. You could watch it every year how his swimmer would swim tired through one Nationals, tired through another Nationals, and then all of a sudden make a team and then just swim outstanding at the most important meet. That is hard to do. It is hard to keep somebody interested, particularly somebody who is a world champion, but he was able to convince those people that that was important.

Jill Sterkel taught me the importance of rest. You know, I have been blessed by having some great assistant coaches, and I think Jill was one of the best for me because she is so calm, and I am so intense. The girls could go to her if they were too afraid to go to me. We were never worried about our teams being out of shape, but Jill was always worried about our teams being rested enough. I can always remember in the last three weeks of the season her coming up to me – of course she is bigger than me, and although she didn’t grab me by the lapels, I felt like she did – and she would say, “Mark, we have worked really hard. We are in really good shape. Don’t be afraid to rest them.” And I think it is important that we all remember that.

Mike Bottom and Dave Salo taught me not to be afraid to be your own person. I have so much respect for coaches that do it their own way. I think a lot of us get caught up in this is the best way or that is the best way or why does this person do this. You have to decide the way that works for you, and these guys are two of the most creative minds. They do things completely different than anybody else, and they have tremendous success. In my years of observation, I think that is why American Swimming is so successful because we allow the individual coaches to do it their own way. Be careful how critical we are of that, because these guys are getting it done.

The last person I would like to talk about is Doc Councilman. When I was a high school kid in Ohio, a college student at the University of Kentucky, and a high school coach after I graduated, Doc would allow me to come and watch practice. I was amazed at how Doc Councilman made me feel like the most important swimming coach in the world when I was a graduate assistant at the University of Kentucky. I was going there to watch Mark Spitz, Gary Hall, and John Kinsella, and he would sit there and talk to me about how the practice was going to go, what they were going to do, and what he was trying to accomplish. I think Doc was one of those coaches that was not afraid to break the mold. He would come up with new ideas. He would try ideas. He would discard ideas. He wasn’t afraid to break the mold, and he shared it with all of us, whether it was in books, in articles, in observation, or in speeches. He would think outside the box, and I think that was what made his practices creative and fun. He would take the time to watch great swimmers for the keys to their success. Probably on six occasions when I was at Mission Viejo he would show up unannounced on the pool deck at practice and just ask me if he could go down and use the underwater window. He would ask if a certain swimmer could swim in a certain lane so he could film them. He wanted to know what they were doing. He wanted to know what made them special. He would always send me a copy, and he would always give me observations, but that guy was paying attention to the people that were swimming fast all the time.

He would always treat everybody as a team, and a team for Doc was a family. He would treat them as a family, but he would make everybody know that he was going to treat them as an individual. I remember walking in and watching a workout where everybody’s name was written on the board. For whatever the main set was going to be, he wrote goals on the board for what he wanted them to try to accomplish, and I can remember the negotiation that was going on between him and his swimmers. “Well no, you shouldn’t be asking me to do this. I should do that.” And Doc would just smile and say, “Oh no, you can do this. You can do this.” That was very special – learning how important it is to challenge people to their limits. The other thing that I learned from Doc was the importance of team activities away from the pool. He was always planning a barbecue or some kind of a team get together, and again, I think the way he made his team feel like a family was something that was very special.

The last few comments that I have, and the topic is what I learned from great coaches, is that it’s important that you know that there are a lot of great coaches sitting in this room. A great coach really gets defined as somebody who develops a great athlete, but it is really many times we are blessed with the opportunity of working with a great athlete. Lets not ever forget that a great coach is somebody that gives people a great experience. That includes swimming fast, but that includes so much more than swimming fast – working as a team, caring about each other, and developing attributes that will go on far beyond our swimming careers and our coaching careers. You may not have the best facility. You may not have the best athletes to work with, but you do have the opportunity to be a great coach. And as I go around the country recruiting and watching other programs, I learn a lot from a lot of you great coaches. I do want to take the opportunity to give a little plug to our next speaker who is C. M. Newton. Many of you know him, know of his coaching, know of the fact that he has been the Athletic Director at the University of Kentucky, and he knows about winning. Granted, I am a little bit prejudiced having graduated from the University of Kentucky, but I really encourage you to stay and listen to him and what he has to share with you about winning, because I know that it will be extremely useful for you. Does anybody have any questions? Thanks for the opportunity to share. I appreciate it.

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