Critical Coaching Ideas by Mark Schubert (2005)


Thank you Coach Daland. It has been a wonderful experience for me to follow Peter at USC. Peter has always been an idol and a mentor of mine, and, over the past 14 years that I have been at USC, he certainly has become a dear friend and a great resource. One of the valuable things of my being able to be in that position is my being able to work with Peter on a lot of projects. It has been a lot of fun.

I created this talk, “What Younger Swimmers Need From Their Coach”, but basically this talk pertains to everybody. It is, “What Swimmers Need From Their Coach”, and I am going to talk a little bit about ideas that I think most of us know. Maybe I can give you some things to think about. Maybe I can give you some things to remind yourself about. I read through this at the beginning of every season and it helps me to form my season and think about things that I need to do outside of running workouts.

I think self-confidence is probably the main thing that swimmers need to get from their coach. I was watching a lot of the accolades recently given to Jerry Rice when he retired from football. They talked about two rookies sitting in the San Francisco locker room when they played San Diego in the Supper Bowl, and the rookies were talking about how scared they were sitting there on the bench, kind of trembling a little bit. Jerry Rice came in, looked them in the eye, grabbed them by the face guard and said, “We will win this game.” That is all he said, and those two rookies, who later became great NFL players, said that it completely turned their mindset around. They went from being unconfident and slightly scared to being ridiculously confident to the point of almost being over-confident. There is an example of one person having an effect on the other by sharing their confidence.

I think self-confidence is something that is developed by how you treat your swimmers, and I think it is important to know that you are developing their self-talk, which really is what develops their confidence. It is what they are telling themselves, and I think you need to listen to them closely. Listen to their self-talk. You will hear it expose itself every day in practice in the things they say about others, the things they say about themselves, the things they say about the team. I think one of the biggest recent challenges over the last ten years is the advent of trash talking, and I think we see a lot of that. Trash talking is popular. It is considered fun. It is considered friendship. But I try to talk to my team to get them to really think about how it is affecting the other person. What are they getting out of it that is positive? Although I try not to correct it in front of the group, I do not hesitate to correct it one on one. I try to encourage people to say positive things about their teammates, to talk positively about what they have done in practice, to appreciate coaching of the teammates. In other words, getting teammates to correct each other’s errors. If you hear individuals putting themselves down, I think it is important to pull them aside and talk to them about and to find out what is going through their head. When you pull them into a meeting and you talk about goals, it is important to listen to them and listen to their impression of themselves. I found it interesting yesterday when Eddie talked about the 80% that want to do well and the 20% that hate to lose. I think there is probably 20-40% in that 80% that just don’t have the confidence yet to be killers but can developed to be killers.

I think it is important to talk to your team about how they treat each other, not just in the pool. We all talk about the importance of putting each other up, recognizing good performances, etc., but I think it is also important to talk about what is being said out of the pool, away from the pool. A lot of the dynamics within the team will happen away from the pool, particularly in the locker room. I think the locker room is probably the Petri dish for the most negativity that goes on within your team. If you can get your leaders to work on that a little bit, I think that will help. You need to comment anytime you observe destructive self-behavior. In other words, people treating themselves poorly. Whether you take disciplinary action on it or not, I think you need to comment on it. That may be people putting themselves down, people putting each other down, or any type of behavior that is self-destructive. These are things that you hear – the little rumors that you hear about actions that are happening away from the pool.

You know with age groupers we always start off with athletes that are on the team to please their parents. They may be on the team because their parents sent them there and made them come. They may not even want to be there, or they may be on the team and want to be there because they want to please mom and dad. Hopefully, we take them from that point to the point where they want to please the coach. Once they get there, some athletes never leave that point. I have many athletes on my team that are coach pleasers. It is really important to them to please the coach. My goal as a teacher is to have them get to the point where they want to please themselves. At this point they basically get to where they are taking care of themselves. They know what to do. They are self-motivated. I think it is the coach’s role to take care of their swimmers, but I think it is more important to teach your swimmers to take care of themselves, no matter what age. Teach them to be self-reliant and keep talking about the things that are important.

I think one of the most influential interviews that I ever saw on TV was of a woman who broke a world record at the Olympic trials. The television commentator asked, “How did you do that? What was involved that let you know that you could break the world record? And what did you have to do to do that?” She came back immediately and said, “The reason that I broke the world record was because my coach told me that I could. And once I realized, because I had such faith in him, once I realized that, I did everything I could to make that prophecy possible.” What a tremendous power we have – “because my coach told me I could”.

I think it is very important that we teach swimmers that performance in practice relates to performance in competition. In order to improve we must improve the way we practice – the way we practice from a technique standpoint, the way we practice from a speed standpoint, and the way we practice from an encouraging others and encouraging ourselves standpoint. In order to do that, we need to know each other very well. I am always amazed at the beginning of every year when I show up, coaching a college program, how many people do not read the pace clock. It is not that they don’t know how, but they don’t do it. They do not pay attention to it. They don’t pay attention to their splits. They don’t pay attention to their average time on a set. I always have a rule that if I ask somebody their time, they must know it. If not, they repeat the set. The freshmen usually get caught, and then after that they probably become smart enough to at least guess what their times were if they were not paying attention. But it is so important that you learn to know yourself.

I think it is important that you teach your swimmers to work on their weaknesses, and in order to do that you have to identify them. You have to do a good job of sitting down on a regular basis and identifying weaknesses. We do this sometimes in a team meeting where we will go around the room. I will usually say something real positive about somebody in the last meet, and then I will say, “…and if you will just work on this you will become so much better.” And then we allow the team to comment on their observations, and it is seen as a very positive thing not a negative thing. It is amazing, at least for three weeks, how hard they work on it afterwards. At least for three weeks and then you have to keep reminding them. I think it is important that you also point out their strengths and that they learn to enhance their strengths. Everybody has things that they do particularly well, whether it be turns or negative splitting or kicking. Everybody has strengths. Not only do you need to improve your weaknesses, but you need to enhance your strengths.

I think it is important to teach them that they must do at least one thing extraordinary every practice. In order to do one thing extraordinary, you need to know what the definition of extraordinary is. You need to know yourself well enough to know what your best time is for a 50 kick, a 400 pull, or a 200 IM. It is extraordinary to me to see how many people don’t have a clue when I ask my team before a set, “What is your best time on a 200 IM? Because we are going to do a set of 200 IM’s and I want you to descend down and challenge your best time.” Eddie was talking last night about some good times on 50 kicks, you know some kids do not have a clue what their best time is for a 200 kick. How do you know you did something extraordinary if you are not keeping track of that? It is important to emphasize that they know themselves. They will know what the other kid’s extraordinary thing is. Everybody on my team knows that Larsen Jensen can kick 100 meters under a minute. They know that, but it is important that they compare themselves to themselves.

It is important that swimmers develop an attitude of payback for hard work in practice. Everybody talks about working hard, but I try to talk at the beginning of the season about how easy it is for me and the other coaches to predict within two weeks of the end of the season who will swim the best. Then I give examples, and I ask my swimmers, “Why was that easy?” And they can usually all raise their hands and tell me it’s because of the performances that they have observed in practice. The other thing I like to talk to them about is the fact that, although we always seem to have a big debate on how to taper, the taper is won in the nine months preceding the taper. The taper is won or lost. It is impossible to taper well without that nine months of hard work. Sure, you have your occasional very talented athlete that will continue to improve, but in most cases, it is hard to fail if you have put the work in during the previous nine months. You need to also talk to them about the savings account effect – the fact that they are earning future interest on the hard work that they are putting in now. We have had some comments made at this clinic about how well people have swum a year later and not done very much work. I guarantee you it is because of the interest-bearing account that has been developed, and I guarantee you that people will find out that the interest runs out when the hard work stops. Maybe not a year later and maybe not two years later, but it will stop. It is important that we keep talking about that. When working with younger swimmers we all run into the plateau situation. Unfortunately, everybody doesn’t always swim fast at the meet that we want them to swim fast in, and we need to keep talking about the fact that, although we dream about it, when we have plateaus it is important to work through it. It is important to do the things that you need to do to improve and keep the interest bearing account building.

One-on-one with the coach, whether you have a team of ten or a team of 110, is essential, and you need to find times and places to make that happen. I always try to start our workout with 15 minutes of stretching. I usually walk around while one of the captains leads stretching and talk to athletes. I want to make sure that I talk to every athlete, every day. Even if it’s only to say hi and to ask them how is it going. Or I’ll just look them in the eye and smile at them. It is also my goal to get them to smile back at me every day, and I make a little game out of that. I have a girl who when she showed up in the morning her first two years would never smile at morning workout. Try as I might, I couldn’t get her to smile. Last year I got her to smile three times. I am keeping score!! We talk about it as a team all the time, and it is a challenge I’ve given them. I challenged the rest of the team to get her to smile in practice. Afternoon practice – no problem. Morning practice – no way.

One of the important things in working through plateaus is working on other events. That is important on all levels, and I think wise coaches work on all four strokes all the time. I don’t care if you can’t swim breaststroke, but you better be able to swim breaststroke with a dolphin kick because we are going to swim IM. I am going to encourage people to learn to swim breaststroke even though they think they can’t because sometimes they are surprised. It just makes practice fresh. It gives people the opportunity to race other talented people in different events. One of my big breakthroughs this summer was Larsen Jensen announcing mid-summer that his third event at NCAA’s in 2006 was going to be the 400 IM. What a huge victory. Last year I could not convince him to save my life. But he has really accepted the challenge, and I think his training has been better because he is now more enthusiastic about swimming all four strokes.

Start each season anew with small goals, progressing to large goals. I think talking about goals is always important and has to start from the first day. Every team at every level has a super bowl, whether it’s the sectional championships, the junior Olympics, NCAA’s, or the Olympic trials. We all have a super bowl to shoot for, a meet to qualify for, and a meet to do well in, and I don’t think you can ever start off too young talking about swimming your best at the most important meet. I think a lot of coaches make a mistake in allowing athletes to swim in a comfort zone. They go to a meet where they know they can win, where they know the competition isn’t very tough, and they do their best times at that meet. Then they go to a higher-level meet, and they have trouble relaxing and performing well. We need to develop the mentality that the most important meet at the end of the season is the meet where we will swim our best times – that is the only thing that is acceptable. I heard an interesting comment and definition that I had never heard before when I had my freshman meetings these past two weeks. One of my freshmen talked about what she called a “blow-off meet”. She wanted to know which meets were blow-off meets, and I guess what she was talking about were meets that were not important where she could swim as slow as she wanted to. I said, “I have never heard of a blow-off meet and I have never scheduled one. Every one is important in identifying your strengths, your weaknesses and building your confidence. Please do not use that term again.”

I think it is more important to teach your athletes to compete well than to train well. I think learning to train well is really important, but we have got to get people to the point where the performance at the end of the season is the most important thing. Conquering anxiety is one of the most important jobs that you have as a coach because all of your swimmers will have anxiety at some level. You may think you have a swimmer that has ice in their veins, but they will improve only to the point where anxiety becomes a factor. So you need to teach them how to perform well when they have people ahead of them to their left and ahead of them to their right. How many swimmers do we have that always swim their best times when they are two or three body lengths ahead? It is so easy to do that. There is no anxiety, and it is interesting to hear swimmers say to me, “I always swim better if I take it out fast because I want to be ahead.” I say, “Well, what happens if everybody is as fast as you and maybe they are a little bit ahead half way through the race?” The usual response is, “Oh, I don’t like that.” You need to teach them to swim from behind. You need to teach them to swim eyeball to eyeball. You need to challenge them. Take them to competitions where they will have to face that if you expect them to improve and to swim well at a high level. We call it “raising our comfort zone”. Everybody has a comfort zone. We want to raise our comfort zone.

I also talk to teams about pecking order. I talk to them about the mother duck with the little ducklings walking behind. I point out that the ducklings always stay in the same order, and I tell them that on this team there is a pecking order. If you think about it, you all know what it is. This girl is supposed to be faster than this girl who is supposed to be faster than that girl. This guy is the best guy – the best freestyler. This guy is the second best freestyler, and so forth. It is the same when you go to the same meets and compete against the same people. You can see the pecking order happening. I try to talk a lot about breaking the pecking order. I challenge them by saying, “Lets see how many pecking orders we can break.” In team meetings after the meet I ask for a show of hands of people that broke the pecking order, or I ask the team to compliment people that broke the pecking order. I think it is important to compete at low-level competitions that are easy where you can swim off events. But it is really important that you continually ratchet up the level of competition, where you are swimming against the best people and get out of that comfort zone.

I think the team concept is something that America does better than any other country, and I am very proud of that. I didn’t realize that when I started in the sport, but I did become interested in the sport of swimming because of the team concept, because of my experience in high school. The team concept is a lot more than cheering for each other at swim meets. The team concept is helping each other every day to improve. Making a commitment to helping your teammates improve. That may be in comments that you make to them in practice. That may be in allowing others to coach each other in practice. Once you get to the point where your team feels free enough and unthreatened enough that they can correct each other’s streamlines, their turns, and their head positions, you have got a lot more coaches than just you standing on the deck. And, being in the water, their vantage point is much better than yours. They see a lot more than you do. Team success has to be the highest priority of what goes on in your program for you to have a true team concept, and every swimmer needs to make a commitment as to how they will contribute. Everyone can contribute in some way. It needs to be talked about, and the team needs to hold each other to that commitment and to the behavior that makes that commitment possible.

I think it is important, as you analyze your strengths and weaknesses, that you video your swimmers. I really like videoing my swimmers in practice when they do not know they are being videoed. I think that is the most effective time. We certainly take them over to the diving well and videotape them separately, swimming at race pace, and so forth, and they are kind of on-stage and on-show. But it is really important to video them as they are truly practicing in workout. Sometimes I will just get stand on the side of the pool during the set, hold the camera, and video turns, and we see how many people are pushing off deep past the flags and how many people push up on the surface. Or we’ll under-water video strokes on a main set where people are really trying to perform. Then it is great to have a session a day or two later with the team where we show it, and sometimes I don’t say a word. I just ask for their comments and they raise their hands and comment on their teammates. That shows that they know what they are supposed to be doing and that their teammates know what they are supposed to be doing. Then the question is why aren’t we doing it? Also, show films of the best swimmers in the world. Point out what they do well, and try to have your swimmers imitate that.

Keep practice interesting. I think the best coaches that I have ever been around and been involved with keep practice interesting. Always change it. Changing it means making it fun. Challenging is fun, but changing it is fun also. I will give you a little example. On Labor Day this past Monday, we had the whole place to ourselves. There were no divers, no water polo players, and no rec. swimmers. We had two pools, so I told them that we would have an hour and a half of continuous practice. It was never to stop at any point. When they were listening to the next set, we would tell them whatever vertical kick or vertical skull set they needed to be doing while they were listening. It was a non-stop practice where they would get out, dive, kick in one pool, get out, do ten push-ups, swim, get out, do 20 sit-ups, get back in and swim. We started off with a snake, then we did relays, then we did vertical kicking, then we did what I call a firestone drill. A firestone drill is kicking on the wall with your face in the water, unless you need to take a breath. Usually we do a double firestone drill where they turn off the wall and one goes under water and one by goes above. Instead we did a four-way firestone where the breaststrokers were kicking breaststroke on the sides of the lanes because they can kick underneath the outside lane lines. The breaststrokers would do pull-outs at different lengths, and the other guys would kick under water or sprint no breather on top. That is kind of how we concluded it. It was something completely different from what they had ever done before. Everybody left with a smile on their face, and they really worked hard. The more creative you can be, particularly throwing things like that out as a surprise, the more excited your swimmers will be about swimming.

Challenge your swimmers, and I don’t mean challenging them by hard sets, although I think that is important. I think when you challenge them with the hard set I always like to do that at the beginning of the practice, talking specifically about what the challenge set is going to be during the day and what I expect of them – to see how many 100’s they can make on a minute or how many 100’s kick long course they can make on 1:30 – whatever the challenge is, but sometimes, particularly on quality sets, I like to challenge individuals. I like to walk up to somebody and look them in the eye and say “I want you to break 1:02 on as many of these hundred fly’s as you can” – just something of that nature. When you do it individually, when you do it one-on-one it is so effective. Look them in the eye, and give them the challenge.

Discipline. I think swimmers at all levels strive for and appreciate discipline through the structure of swimming, and I think what you are doing is you are teaching them responsibility. We try to tell them it is up to you – success is up to you. You must learn to take the responsibility for success – be on time, keep track of your equipment, put your equipment away, do the drills properly, do the turns properly, six beat kick in practice – and there needs to be consequences. You know, its funny, over the years I have gone from being a coach that is a screamer to a coach that says can I talk to you a minute in the middle of a set, and it is amazing the fear that that puts through a swimmer’s mind. When I call them out of practice in the middle of a set, and I don’t yell at them but say, “You know, if you really want to be good, this is the kind of set that you need to six beat kick the whole set. You don’t have to do it hard, but I do not want to see any more two beat kick.” Or just make the comment (we did this one Saturday on a T-30), “Every swimmer will push off past the flags, and you will all do a great job of it. If somebody slips up we will all enjoy accepting the challenge of starting the T-30 over from the top.” Boy, they did it well. Every swimmer – deep push off’s beyond the flags. And I enjoyed saying, “Now there are some of you that I will particularly be watching, because I know that all of last year I talked to you about this.” And you know, a couple of them went, “Me!!” But they did a great job.

Leadership. You need to teach leadership. Leadership is a learned skill. It is more natural for some than others, but it is a learned skill. Leadership starts with you. It starts by your example as a leader – what you do, your presence, your actions, the way you treat people. It starts with you. You need to encourage it. Ask for leaders. You know, I say things like, “I am looking forward to seeing who the leaders are who are going to lead the lane,” because I love people that lead the lane. I love people that recognize that you have a five second disadvantage, and you are going to work harder when you lead the lane. I love those guys. You need to encourage it by being vocal leaders outside the pool – in the locker room and away from the pool. You need to encourage your swimmers to follow good leadership. There are many types of leadership. They need to follow good leadership. One time I visited the Navy Seal base down in San Diego in Coronado. I talked to the commander and he said, “You might think that we are training good leaders. We are not. We are training the best followers in the world, but if the leader goes down, they all know how to be leaders. The next leader will stand up.” I thought that really pertained very well to any kind of a sport situation.

Never assume that people know the basics. I think it is important as a teacher that you continually talk about the basics, because as I said, you can be a great teacher, and they can remember something for three weeks, but then they will gradually slip back into poor habits. Continually encourage good habits and be teaching good habits. Be consistent with your message. Don’t send mixed signals. Decide what your message is going to be and be consistent with it. I had a very interesting question once when I spoke to a group. Someone asked me, “If there was one thing that I could recommend to a group of young swimmers that would make the biggest impact on the success of their career, what would it be?” I told them if I had to pick one thing it would be to keep a logbook. I think keeping a logbook teaches swimmers to take responsibility for their own swimming. It teaches them to compare themselves to themselves. Sometimes when people start beating themselves up and their self-talk gets negative, it is because they are comparing themselves to somebody else on the team that may be better at that moment in a certain set than they are. It is important that they not only write the practices down, but more important, that they write the times down that they do in practice, that they write the splits of the times of a main set down that they do in practice, that they know their best times for certain distances and certain sets so that they can compare them as the season goes along. Emphasize that the important thing is the improvement throughout the season, not that they start out in September and October comparing themselves to the times that they did in June and July when they were in terrific shape. More important, compare yourself to what you did last September and October. Write in your times from your meets and the splits of your times. Lord knows the coaches sit there for hours on end to give you feedback to give you splits, to talk about the race. You need to write it down. It needs to be in your logbook so that you remember it.

The other thing is stroke correction. Write down any stroke correction you are given in practice and review it regularly. If it is something that you continually have a problem with, put it on a 3 x 5 card and put it on the mirror where you see it every day, next to your goals so you are thinking about doing it in practice.

Resting heart rate I think is a good thing to take first thing in the morning. It gives them an idea of their recovery. Food logs can be an effective way for them to remind themselves of how well or poorly they are taking care of themselves from a nutritional standpoint. Goals on the first page of the logbook and goal splits – small goals for the beginning of the season, big goals for the end of the season, and dream goals. Dream goals are important. Dreams are achieved if you are not afraid to dream.

I am going to finish with some little things. I know you do not consider me an age group coach, but ever since I have been running swim camps, which has now been for about 18 years, between four and seven weeks a year I do get a chance to be an age group coach, and it is probably the most valuable teaching experience for me every year. It gets me back to teaching people how to swim properly, but I do have some pretty consistent observations that I am just going to throw out. For some of you it will be appropriate, for some of you it may not. It is so obvious when people come to swim camp the people that are well coached, but it is also so obvious the things that are not being taught day-to-day in practice that are essential.

Streamlining. If you want to see how well your team streamlines, I have a little drill where they jump off the bottom of the pool dolphin kick and streamline in the air. Have them face away from you and videotape that. Then show the tape to them and ask who is streamlining the best? Who is holding the streamline? Who comes off like this and who comes off like this? Who keeps their head in line with their spine? Who puts their chin on their chest? Who puts their head like this? So many kids still push off like this. They come to college pushing off like this. You know, you make our job harder when you allow that to happen.

Dolphin kicking. We used to say dolphin kicking was important for three of the four strokes. That is no longer the case. It is all-important now. You need to learn how to do it. You need to learn how to push off and dolphin kick. Breath control – you need to learn how to do it. There is no reason that young swimmers can’t push off properly and do six dolphin kicks. It is all a matter of teaching them that it is important.

Teaching them about the difference between good swimming and survival workout swimming. Most bad habits happen in practice swimming circle pattern with large numbers of people in the lane. They need to know that there is a huge difference between swimming properly and swimming survival as far as keeping your body position in line in all strokes, and you need to teach them whenever possible to practice doing it the right way. Swimming freestyle with the snorkel will help that immensely, but the number of people that I see swimming freestyle with their head high, or the number of people that I see doing freestyle turns looking up and then going in. It’s amazing, and it is all habits developed in practice. Talk about that – proper breathing in all strokes, just basic proper breathing. Freestyle – keeping one goggle in and not lifting your head to take a breath.

Ankle flexibility is a huge thing when taught at an early age that can really help swimmers improve. Learning how to kick properly. You would be surprised of the number of swimmers that can qualify for the national championships that can’t kick correctly, that bicycle their kick, that have never been shown their kick under water and taught how to kick correctly, and it can be easily done by starting off with vertical kicking.

Finishes. Everyone can be taught, no matter what kind of a motor moron you have on your team, how to finish correctly. It is basic you know, and all you need to do is talk about how many of you have lost a race by 1/100 of a second. Most of them have. Then show them the difference between this and this and ask them how long do you want your arm to be? Or when they finish on freestyle, putting their hands in and then lifting their head up to see what their time is or giving up on the finish instead of extending all the way to the wall, and this goes up to the very highest level. You see underwater photography of the world championships, and it is amazing the habits that are there. This is our responsibility. This is coaching. This is teaching. This is on every level. We have to do these kinds of things.

Starts, turns, and relay take offs. Don’t just swim up and down the pool all day. Swimming up and down the pool all day is very important, but teach them at a young age how to be athletic. They like those things. That is fun, and it is important no matter what the distance. Teach them to learn to teach each other. Once you get your team to the point where they all know how to do it properly, when the young ones come in they love teaching the young ones how to do it properly, and it helps them to relate to each other.

I think I have pretty much covered what I wanted to cover, but I did want to take a few minutes for questions. If any of you have any questions, I would be happy to entertain them. That bad huh? Okay, I do have a very important announcement, and this kind of came up at the last minute. For those of you that are college coaches, we have had a lot of very good discussions this week already about the new executive director position with the College Swimming Coaches Association. The executive director of the NCAA wrestling coaches will be with us tomorrow at 12 noon, and that is the regularly scheduled college coaches meeting from 12 noon to 1:00 o’clock. If you can be there, I think it would be very helpful for you to be educated by him as to what they are doing and to ask questions and to relate to what we could be doing in swimming. Thank you very much.

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