Coaching University Age Swimmers through Club & University Coach Cooperation


By Bob Steele,California State University-Bakersfield

Cooperation between a club or high school coach and a university coach working with the same swimmer is essential if that swimmer is going to “be the best he or she can be.” Cooperation and consistency become complicated with living and training at two sites, frequently with coaches of differing personalities and philosophies. Both coaches should become partners and present a unified front regardless of personal views. The “other” coach is ALWAYS right and a regular conversation of two minutes helps. For convenience here club and high school coaches are termed club coach. Statements may not reflect every situation.


If swimming is important in selecting a university, the swimmer should consider a school based upon academics, followed by the coach, program, and team that best satisfy the athlete’s “need” to reach achievable goals. A university should not be attended for the wrong reason, usually financial aid or a great party during the campus visit. The coaches should permit and encourage Sunday-Monday visits to reduce the influence of the social aspect from selection.

Being the best one can be in competitive swimming requires personal commitment beyond most other sports. Since SELF is the primary motivator of all athletes, coaching is generally the second most important motivator of senior athletes and how one’s coaches work together is critical to success and longevity. “I am becoming what I am to be” and “if it is to be, it’s up to me” are athlete value statements a coach inherits and guides.

A dedicated, focused coach can help the athlete achieve only what the athlete commits to achieve. As with parenting, the coach, must not beat himself up for an under-achieving athlete. Frequently, the swimmer complains “the coach doesn’t motivate me,” when actually the swimmer may not be motivating the coach. If a swimmer complains about a situation at home or the university, the partner coach should encourage the swimmer to first deal directly with the coach. A phone call to the coaching partner would tip-off the need for discussions.

Never undercut the other party on making skill, training, or taper changes. The security blanket must be thrown away at some point. Help the swimmer realize they can make a program work for them and a paradigm shift provides a chance to be fast through “new” methods. Do we as coaches discourage an athlete from changing a stroke just because it feels strange? No way! So don’t discourage a change in routine. Encourage faith, loyalty and acceptance. The most important word in coaching is “TRY” and it is of utmost importance here.

To receive financial aid and compete in NCAA competition an athlete must graduate with an SAT of 820+. GPA of 2.0+, along with an acceptable course pattern in core subjects, with little variation between Divisions I, II, III. Since NCAA rules and university acceptance sometimes differ, the swimmer must satisfy both.


The club coach needs to prepare the prospect properly by creating a success oriented environment focused on basic rules or guidelines for accountability in swimming as well as academics. If a swimmer is failing or delinquent, not practicing or racing should be a consequence imposed by the coach if not the parents.

In an effort to help university-age swimmers, the club coach should communicate with the university coach from the time one of five campus visits is made until the swimmer no longer interacts with the club coach. The club coach needs to level with the university coach concerning the swimmer’s academic record, study habits, training habits, teammanship, personal values, friends with whom they travel, desire and commitment to achieve. Be honest with each other so both may revel in athlete success and neither one has egg on his face for ending up with a “pig in a poke.” Don’t wait for a call;take the initiative and the partner coach will appreciate it.

Once a swimmer visits and commits to attend a university, the coaches should talk further about swimmer response to various training and tapering routines, the trials and errors of motivation, strengths and weaknesses of strokes, starts, and turns (perhaps to the point of providing meet and/or practice video) racing strategies, favorite and disliked coaching/training methods. There are hundreds of things to discuss but someone has to take the first step.

These areas of cooperation enable the university coach to know the recruit and plan the swimmer’s fit into the university system, thus becoming a contributing member of the university team. While it is impossible to keep regular personal contact with a cadre of recruits’ coaches, team newsletters or web site results keep them informed. Getting off to a smooth start is helpful to four years of university training and competition.


When the athlete arrives at the university everything changes and the value system in which the swimmer was raised and coached will be tested. Because of new-found independence, they may encounter distractions that will test their resolve to be successful academically and athletically. Some adapt, some don’t. Sometimes the very best high school student-athlete goes down the drain and sometimes a poor high school student experiences unpredictable success. The cards, however, must be laid on the table by the university coach and support staff.

Some things that require attention include:

  1. A complete understanding of NCAA rules for eligibility, behavior, and scholarship retention. These are complex and should be shared with the parents. The swimmer and parents need to know about taking 12 units per semester, passing 24 units per year (12 units per quarter/36 units per year), possible non-credit make-up work, maintaining a 2.0 GPA, declaring a major Junior year, following team and NCAA training guidelines, summer school classes and transferable credit to retain aid. While academic progress should be the responsibility of a maturing adult, the university/coach should have a monitoring system in place to assist.
  2. A plan for USA Swimming competitions representing the university, or training and representing the club, with NCAA rules. Swimmers may represent the university and be immediately eligible to represent the home club team;however, moving from club to club requires 120 days.
  3. Since the focus of education is to improve job market opportunities, studies and tests must receive attention. Some universities and/or teams have required study halls, and if swimmers fail to attend they are not permitted to practice. Most university athletic departments or universities provide tutoring and assistance for “special student” needs.
  4. Training requires 15 to 20 hours per week;however, most university class schedules are structured in blocks that reduce academic and athletic conflicts.
  5. When or if swimmers return home for holiday training, partner coaches should require that swimmers follow the training requirements and routines as prescribed by the CLUB coach. The university swimmer must provide leadership by attending every practice for the whole practice or not attend at all. Taper training should be communicated by the university coach. Slacking in front of club kids is demoralizing and unacceptable.
  6. Once signed a swimmer can be motivated to train hard for the club coach with occasional calls from the university coach. However, care should be taken not to critique the club coach.


Summer preparation generally starts following a week or two of slack training to no training after a 28-week season. Then the fun begins. The university coach is challenged to return a “fit” athlete to the home team. Club coach-athlete communication at this time helps the athlete re-focus on the summer plans opportunities, and obligations.

While we hate to admit it, some athletes are better-served with a spring or summer off as long as fitness and motivation are retained. Generally, an extended layoff prevents time drops when competitions are resumed. This is purely individual.

NCAA spring training rules create slackers unless the swimmer is committed to team and personal success. If peers or teammates are slacking, it’s a challenge for the focused kid to go it alone while the university coach stays after the delinquents.

The spring training commitment is complicated by swimmers:

  1. Having USAS Junior or Senior time standards from the prior year or Conference/NCAA shaves and knowing they’ll attend the meets regardless of spring or summer training because the trip money will come from mom and dad, the club, the LSC, and USAS if good enough.

    While few high level swimmers who have a chance make a USA team will slack, it’s the other swimmers with whom we need to concern ourselves. Don’t forget to get the OVC’s ASAP!

  2. Course loads may be increased in spring because of academic requirements, course patterns, or poor grades in the fall/winter and the need to maintain eligibility for fall.
  3. Social activities increase, like;the lake, fishing, boating, concerts, chasing guys or gals, camping out, parties, and getting away.
  4. The need to take classes that conflicted with practice times during the season or are offered infrequently.
  5. Employment is sometimes essential, especially if the swimmer is on a partial or no scholarship.


In an attempt to provide swimmers with the motivation to attend spring practices so fitness is evident and ambitious club training can occur immediately, the following motivational system has been used either all or in part. The main thing is keeping them in the water by providing enjoyable yet challenging sessions.

  1. Next year’s successful NCAA season starts this spring.
  2. For variety and freshness, have men and women practice together in event-specific training groups with a different coach/assistant philosophy and routine each week.
  3. Train swimmers separately on either a Blue or Gold team picked at the start of spring training and culminating in a long course intra-squad meet the Friday before finals start.
  4. Daily Blue vs. Gold challenges include a practice ending relay, head to head racing, crazy races, water polo; etc.
  5. Thursday time trials long course, with handicap starts and/or races matching different strokes and swimmers that don’t generally race but should have the same final time.
  6. Swim against other universities in a fax meet or agreed-to training sets long course, i.e. 10×100 (fly) @ best average head-to-head and scored.
  7. Skill development work with stroke changing drills, video analysis, power racks, swim pro rods; etc.
  8. Focus training on a local spring USA Swimming meet prior to departing for the summer.
  9. Swimmers fine anyone $1 for any practices missed less than five. Delinquents must pay up prior to the spring Blue/Gold long course meet in order to compete. The money is then given to the five kids that made the most practices. They may divide $60.
  10. With partner coach cooperation, a swimmer may train with the university team while attending summer school and represent the home club. Don’t forget to have university swims observed and then get the OVC’s. Swimmers may represent the university at spring nationals and be immediately eligible for the club team upon arrival at home.
  11. One major rub for the club coach is training a kid that’s been a loyal part of the home team for years or all summer, only to have him represent the university at Seniors and the university coach be the USAS coach-of-record for foreign trips. This is wrong and continues to be addressed by USA Swimming. In this situation, the six-month career culminated in university recognition, while the three-month career culminated in helping a young coach gain recognition and “staying in the university coach’s camp.”

Not addressed is overcoming the independence problem, DRUGS. This requires the parents need to work with either one or both coaches to re-direct activity beneficial to the athlete. Intervention strategy is complex but sometimes essential.

Club coaches cannot expect kids to come home every summer because after one year away from home, home is not at home, it’s at the university. The university coach is expected to provide a positive environment, serve as a parent for nine months, and operate a motivating successful program. Consequently allegiance changes and kids may not return to the club program. Kids grow up, become independent and don’t come home for many reasons sometimes known only to the swimmer. Can you blame them?

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