Effective Teaching and Coaching Characteristics by Terry Laughlin, Pat Frank (2000)


Terry Laughlin, founder and Head Coach of Total Immersion Swimming, has been a competitive swimmer since 1966 and a swimming coach since 1972. Since founding Total Immersion in 1988, he has taught more improvement-minded swimmers than any other swimming coach in the world. His coaching background includes 20 years as a USS age-group coach and award-winning college coach. Many of his swimmers have been National Champions and/or world-ranked. Coach Laughlin has taught the finer points of technique at clinics around the world and at the US Olympic Training Center. In addition to his coaching credentials, Laughlin is, by virtue of his books, articles and website, the world’s most widely read authority on swimming technique and how to learn and teach it. When not coaching or writing about swimming, Terry, not surprisingly, likes to be in the water, and has been an avid Masters swimmer since 1988, where his favorite venue is ocean or open-water racing.



One of the things that I’m aware of happening in U.S. Swimming is that there has been a worsening of the attrition rate of swimming, particularly among boys, because boys are attracted to other sports, more than they are to swimming. I also happened to eavesdrop on a breakfast discussion this morning about some LSC’s and teams that have seen some real shrinkage in the numbers.  This makes me think about my own daughters’ experience in swimming,


I have three daughters ranging in age from 18 to 25. The eldest swam on a team I coached but she didn’t swim for me, she swam for another coach who was really a wonderful teacher. He was really not about giving workouts she was 10, 11 and 12 when she swam for him. He was just focused on teaching all the time. All the kids that swam for him did really well, quite a number had high national age group rankings, quite a number went on to become very successful senior swimmers and they all loved swimming for him.


This experience made my daughter decide that she loved swimming and she continues to love it and she teaches and coaches swimming today. I have two younger daughters, they are now 18 and 21, who swam one season with a club team where there was no teaching. They weren’t very accomplished, but I wasn’t about to step in and be the coach cause I didn’t want to confuse the relationship at home between who is the coach and who is dad. They just swam up and down and I think one week after they joined the team, they were in a meet and one of them was told that she was going to swim butterfly in a relay. She had never been taught to swim butterfly so she was scared out of her mind about what she was going to have to do. Long story short, within about three weeks they told me they hated swimming, they didn’t want to be involved in it anymore.  I made them keep their commitment to complete the season, but at the end of it that was it for them, they never wanted to swim again.


Looking about for what they should do instead, I went to the local tae kwon do school and watched the session and I saw teaching. So I took them down there and it took them about a week to fall in love with tae kwon do. When it was time to go to swim practice I would have to drag them out of the house, and when it was time to go to tae kwon do, I would pull into the driveway and they would be running out to the car in their suits.  It was all because, what was involved in tae kwon do was an identifiable set of skills that you had to master to earn the next belt and every minute of the time that they spent at practice training was devoted to mastering the skills that have been identified as what you had to do to learn the next belt. They were so motivated by it, they would even practiced at home on their own.


That really made an impression on me because effectiveness of the coach, is measured not just by how fast your swimmers go, but how much they love what they do, and how motivated they are to continue doing it. I think that if more coaches were good teachers and were committed to teaching, we wouldn’t be having attrition problems.  So not only would we have a lot more swimmers reaching their potential, but we would have a lot more swimmers staying in long enough to really reach that potential.

So this talk will focus on how to teach so every swimmer reaches their potential and taking those personal experiences and then connecting that to the account that I put in the handout about the study by a professor at the University of Tennessee about the effectiveness of teachers.  It got my attention that when you look at other the other factors that may be involved in helping students reach their potential in school and you see that the effectiveness of the teacher is 10 to 20 times more important than how much money the district spends, than whether it is rural, urban or suburban,  whether it is homogenous or heterogenous groupings.


When you relate it to swim coaching I can recall from the years I spent in age group coaching that I knew from the rapport that I had with my swimmers that I was a far more influential figure in their lives then their teachers in school.


One more thing I should mention here, I have yet to hear any coach complain that they earn too much money and in terms of earning power, there is no premium on being a good workout-writer, no matter if you’re the best trainer in the world. On the other hand, all the people that we have taught how to teach, have all seen their incomes increase significantly, because besides the coaching they do, people come to them for instruction and all of the TI-trained coaches earn from $75 to as much as $125 an hour for teaching private lessons. The coach who commands $125.00 for teaching requires that his students sign up for a minimum of five lessons. The reason people are willing to pay these amounts, when others charge $25 or less for lessons, is that the TI-trained coaches get results. Every hour you spend with them makes a significant difference in your swimming.


People in the learn to swim business never have a problem making a living. Six figure incomes are not out of the realm of possibility. The economic value for coaches who teach well is better and you have an opportunity everyday to refine your teaching. If you take each practice as a opportunity to teach and be good at it, you will really enhance your economic value as a swimming coach.


So what we will talk about today is what and how to teach, and the emphasis will be a lot more on the how then the what.  Total Immersion coaches do a lot of teaching, so we have had a lot of opportunity to learn how.  I never took an education course in college.  I was a government and politics major, but I was always engaged by the teaching side of things when I was a coach and when I quit coaching conventionally in 1988 and started doing work shops I had a unique opportunity to practice teaching all of the time. We have gotten to the point where I think we sort of made a science of how to teach.  Now, a lot of coaches come to us for instruction on how to teach. What I’ll share with you today, is what we have learned about how to teach so that people learn faster.


When we do camps for kids in the summertime, we have 36 come to us for a week and they leave at the end of 5 days, totally transformed swimming unbelievably beautifully compared to the way they looked when they came in.  The rest of the year we teach weekend workshops. Twenty five or 30 adults come to us paying $400.00 for two days of instruction. They are not  reluctant to do that because there is a lot of buzz about the dramatic transformation they can achieve. So consider the economics of 30 people paying $400.00, $12,000.00 revenue in a weekend. That is what people will pay you, when you can get results.


I often watch other swimming teachers at work. I watch for an hour and nothing changes. They try a little of this, a little of that. Okay, now try this, as opposed to having a reliable, consistent process. One thing that really makes a difference when we teach is that we don’t have people swim. They have come to us with muscle memory  because they have been swimming for a few months, or a few years, or perhaps many years. In any case, they have taken millions of strokes. If you ever go to a public pool for lap swim and watch people swimming up and down, you’ll see that nothing ever changes. Whether you watch them on their fifth lap or their fiftieth, every single stroke they ever take is the same.


Swimming is a habit pattern. You can’t change it dramatically — which you need to do with a really poor swimmer, by making little tweaks. If you try to change their swimming by saying “Swim differently like this,” they won’t be able to make significant improvement. And often, subtle change, as would be the case with a more polished swimmer, can be even more difficult.


To avoid the resistance to change of muscle memory, you have to create muscle amnesia, which means drills rather than swimming. The most important thing to think about in terms of teaching, is that their nervous system doesn’t recognize drilling as swimming, so it is possible for them to significantly adjust and change movement patterns while doing drilling and then they can take that back to swimming. What also happens during drilling is that it heightens kinesthetic awareness, it increases the flow of sensory information going back to where they interpret what is going on.  That is a key thing, because if you are a golfer and you make a change in your swing, you can see where the ball goes, if you are a tennis player and you swing differently, you can watch the ball and respond to that change. If you are a swimmer, you never get to see how your stroke changes.  All of your feedback loop has to be internal and so, in teaching, you have to do things that heighten the sensory information.  This is far more true of drills than swimming.

The third key element is martial arts teaching.  There is a culture among martial arts masters and it is not anything like the culture among swimming coaches. We all know plenty of coaches who come to practice, tell their swimmers to do 20 of these, and they sit down and read the newspaper and drink coffee.  Is anybody aware of a martial arts master who comes into the dojo and says O.K. do 20 of those while I sit over here and read Buddha and drink green tea? Obviously, that doesn’t happen.


Martial arts masters are teaching all of the time and have a culture about teaching that is thousands of years old. It would be unthinkable to come in and read the newspaper while people are practicing skills that you are supposed to be teaching, because both the skills and the way they are taught are treated as a nearly sacred art. So, we are trying to adopt this culture of martial arts to swimming. One of the non-negotiable fundamentals about martial arts is they always start with extremely simple positions.  They never ask students to do things that they can’t do well.


So we start every student, no matter how accomplished they may already be, with simple positions. In yesterday’s talk I mentioned that Glenn and I are going to Auburn on Monday, and we are going to spend three days working with their swimming team. Even with them, we’ll start with exceedingly simple things that any 8 and under novice could do. And we’ll stay with them until we are sure that they understand those things and can do them well.


You would be surprised how a really accomplished really advanced athlete sometimes can have extraordinary difficulty with simple movements.  Ron Karnaugh came to me two years ago to learn some short axis drills and initially he was horrible at them.  I was coaching at West Point and he came and joined the team for practice.  Everybody was excited to see him come in, because he stood there on deck and he was obviously a really impressive physical specimen. And he could get in the water and muscle his way up and down impressively. And he definitely had the capacity and willingness to work extremely hard kill.  But as soon as we started doing something that required him to move gently and mindfully, to work on flow, he had an incredible struggle. I ended up pairing him with one of the least experienced swimmers on the team because she was really good at doing short axis pulsing with flow, so I had her teaching him.


The struggling swimmers who you saw on our video yesterday, struggle is all they have ever experienced about swimming.  What I want to do is eradicate that experience from their nervous system.  So I won’t ever give them anything to do that will cause them to fall back into struggle.  If they can’t do step one with flow, we will stay with it until they know how to do that. We only go through the steps with flow at ever step and that is a strong influence from martial arts.


Now let’s talk about verbal or cognitive teaching. This is how most of us teach, and I’ve had to teach all of the coach who teach Total Immersion, a different way of teaching, because we are used to doing what I’m doing now, standing in front of people and talking, and when you stand in front of people on a pool deck and talk they tune you out. Swimmers learn far more by watching or doing than they learn by listening to you.


When we are introducing a new drill I tell the coaches “You’ve got 60 seconds to explain that drill and then send them off. It doesn’t matter how clearly they understand what you said send them off, let them try it.”  I try to limit verbal explanation of a physical skill to 60 seconds, because, in that group, there may only be one or two people who are cognitive processors of information. The great majority of humans process information far more effectively when they see it than when they hear it. But those one or two cognitive geniuses in the group will get it and be able to do it reasonably well. So after one lap, I stop the group, and say “O.K. now watch them,” and as soon as they watch somebody else do it, they get it. Every time we use a demonstrator, the uniformity and excellence of the whole group increases dramatically.  So whether you show a video on the pool deck, or in the classroom and then go to the pool, whether you choose the people in your group who are good at doing what you want everybody else to do, the idea is to let them watch the skill or drill being performed well.


We did a huge amount of that while I was coaching at West Point. I would pull all of the group out and have them stand on deck and watch somebody else do a drill or I would pair them off, and have them watch each other and critique each other. And they would quickly show uniform beauty in their movements. Use demonstrators early, use them often, use them effectively


The little bit of teaching you will do verbally, keep it succinct, keep it colorful, describe it in terms of how things feel, rather than how things look, because they will understand the look of the movement better when they watch it than when they listen to you. But you can help them a lot with understanding when you emphasize how it should feel.


Peer modeling is another key principle of teaching. Most swimming videos feature Olympians as demonstrators. It’s nice to watch Olympians because you learn something about the flow that they have and I think that’s great but, it is so easy for the person watching to think “They’re an Olympian, I’m not; they should be able to do that, but that doesn’t mean that I can do it.  But, but when they see somebody in their lane do it, they say “O.K. I can do that. So peer modeling is a really important part in giving them the confidence that they can do what they’re seeing.


Simplicity and narrow focus is also important. When you are having students watch a person do a drill or skill, tell them to watch just one thing.  You may have them do it several times and on the first lap, have them watch just their head position, see where the water is going over the head, is the head in line and so on. On the second lap, you may call their attention to some of the things we showed on the video yesterday, notice that the whole arm is dry, down to the finger tips.   But tell them one thing at a time and keep it simple. I also try to appeal to their imagination and say this “Watch this and imagine how you will feel when you look like that.”  As soon as you bring their imaginations into it, you engage more of their learning facilities.


The next step in teaching is when they are trying to work out the new skill for themselves, experimenting and refining.  I like to call it trial and success rather than trial and error, because we try to design it so that the steps can be mastered quickly and then you can move to the next step.  We always start our workshops with short repeats–going across the pool rather than the length–and frequent feedback. We do this because when somebody is doing something new, they may do it well for the first twelve or fifteen yards and then for the last twelve or fifteen yards it starts to deteriorate. I’d rather stop it before that happens. Because it’s difficult or unfamiliar, I’d rather let them do it for a short distance where I feel they can do it well, or I can give them feedback more frequently.


Start with short repeats, as you see that they are nailing that short repeat, then you can go to longer repeats.  I teach with 25’s about ninety percent of the time; there is no such thing as giving a 500 of a drill.  Drills should always be done in short repeats, because I can give feedback more frequently, because their mental acuity and attention is better, because fatigue doesn’t become a factor in their execution. We have a motto that a drill done 100% right is 100% right, and a drill done 99% right is 100% wrong, so we don’t want the length of the repeat to become a factor in that.


While they’re working out the right execution of the drill, the way you give constructive criticism is extremely important. Use the sandwich method. Look for something they did well, so they feel good about what they just did, and then say “You can do this even better.”  So start with something positive and then tell them what they can improve and then give them encouragement again before you send them off.


In our workshops, we have 25 or 30 people in the water and five to six coaches on the deck. It is difficult for the coaches to give a lot of attention to everybody all of the time, cause the coach to swimmer ratio is one to five or one to six.  Our attention seems to be drawn to the people who are doing it wrong, their errors are glaring, so we are talking to them, and the person who did it right comes in and wonder “How did I do?”  because nobody is saying anything to them. So we have had give positive feedback and reassurance that they are doing it well. And give that feedback in a way that convey excitement over how well they are doing.


After you have told somebody to change something or told them how they can do it better, let them do it for a lap or two while you’re checking on somebody else, but be sure to go back and check them again even if only for two or three cycles to let them know how they did. It is so important to get feedback, whether you are doing it well or not. If they’re not doing it well, your feedback must be specific. If they’re doing it well, you can just say great job.


There’s a saying that goes “no one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” You can demonstrate that in your teaching by making a physical connection. Some of our coaches are just naturally good at this, they are naturally enthusiastic people and when somebody comes in at the end and they have been struggling for five or ten minutes to get a drill right and on one lap finally things start to fall into place. The coach meets them at the end of the lane and gives them a high five and it just really gets them fired up.


The final step is to close the instructional loop, getting the swimmers to take ownership for their skills. When someone is learning a physical skill and hear a description of what they are going to try to do, they grasp at about 30% level of understanding.  When they see someone do it, their grasp goes up to the 40 or 50% level. When they try it, their grasp goes up to the 50 to 60 % level. When they are asked to teach someone else, their grasp goes up to the 80 to 90% level because, when they are asked to teach someone else,  it makes them clarify the concept in their own mind and put it into words. As soon as they are forced to develop a vocabulary, to describe what they are feeling, they understand it better.


So our teaching process follows these steps. We describe the drill, they try it, we find a demonstrator, they watch the demonstrator. We do some trial and error with feedback and constructive criticism. We do more demonstrations to refine it. They do a little bit more trial and error, then we let them practice it for 7 or 8 minutes without us intruding too much.  Whenever possible at the end of one particular segment of instruction, we pair them off and we will say “O.K. now we’re going to have another demonstration, everybody watch Jim do this. Pay attention to these three things that Jim is doing well. (I point them out.) Then you are going to watch your partner and check them on each of those three things, and tell them how they’re doing.”


I tell them they have five minutes to make their partner to look like Jim, and the fact that they have to take some responsibility for coaching, by the end of the weekend, they really understand the swimming improvement process and they are ready to coach themselves. A situation like that on your team will benefit you as coaches because your coach to swimmer ration might be one to thirty, where ours is one coach for every five or six swimmers. That means in an hour, you can afford to parcel out your attention at two minutes per swimmer. The other 58 minutes in the hour, they’re on their own.  If you have equipped them to coach themselves and critically examine and make subtle adjustments to what they are doing, you have a great situation with 29 assistant coaches in the pool.


We do a lot of coaching during practice, and we tell them how to do many different things, we may put stroke rate monitors on them and we may put lactate analyzers on them and so on. But when the gun goes off, none of that matters, because they have to swim the race themselves, and the only guidance they have is how they feel.  If they have learned to pay attention to themselves, they block out a lot of the opportunities for anxiety that exist in racing because they are focusing on something they control: “How do I feel, how can I make this feel better?”


If in practice, you’ve set up situations where you have directed their attention in a specific way to the feelings they should develop over the course of the race, or if you have given them puzzles to solve in the course of the practice, they’ll be ready to swim in their own lane, sp to speak.  I’ll give you one simple example, at West Point I had a really good swimmer who swam the 100 freestyle race taking 12 to 13 strokes per length.  At practice we had him practice at every stroke count from 6 to 12 strokes a length and we had him swim at a variety of speeds at each of those stroke counts. If he did a series of 100’s at 24 strokes–and I’m not talking about drilling I’m talking about swimming with a 7 yard breakout and so on, and not much kicking–if he did a series of 100’s at 6 strokes a length and he just started at 1:07 and he descended to 1:01, during that set he practiced swimming at different rates at that Stroke Length.  Every time he dropped a second and kept his stroke at 6 strokes a length he swam at a different stroke rate at one constant stroke length.


If we do that with all of his stroke counts and have him learn to go up and down on those stroke counts, he is always solving puzzles.  In the course of that, he is experimenting on his own. Without me saying swim at “40 cycles a minute,” he is experimenting himself with figuring out the optimal way to blend stroke length and stroke rate. At some point in a set, his body is going to say “that is exactly how I want to feel when I’m racing” and he’ll put that in his memory.  So that in the course of the race not only does he have a clear guide to how he wants to feel on the first lap, the second lap, etc, but he knows–because he has developed the internal computer to do that in the most optimal way how to make subtle adjustments on the fly.  If you give practices where your sets are designed to make that happen, you equip the swimmer for increasingly sophisticated self-adjustment. If something doesn’t go according to plan they’ve got another option they can choose.  And it happens seamlessly, because the body and the mind working together is the most powerful computer in the world.  But, unless you design practice to provide an environment for those things to happen, it doesn’t happen. You have to rehearse self-adjustment in order for it to happen in a race.


When we are teaching any drill, we start out by teaching the mechanics of the drill. For instance we are teaching the hand lead balance, we start by making sure your head is in line, that it’s hidden, that I should see just a sliver of the back of your head, water going over the back. I want to see your arm dry, I want to see your shoulder pointed to the ceiling when your nose is down. I want your hand to be below your head when your nose is down.  So they have a series of mechanics to think about.  But when I start to see the mechanics becoming a no-brainer and they don’t have to process so intensely in order to get them, I can ask them to start thinking about some other things.


Here my guide is the learning I’ve had from observations of great swimmers and I think to myself, if I watch a really great swimmer, what is the impression I get when their swimming at warm up or moderate training speed? The impression I get is flow, grace, ease and control.  Those are things I’ve found that you can teach, so after we teach the mechanics we start getting them to focus on the ease of the drill. “Can you do each of these four repeats of this drill so that the 4th one is the easiest? Can you go a little bit easier on each successive one, can you do it a little more gracefully?” When we’re watching the demonstrations, and somebody is doing the drill particularly beautifully, I’ll say “Just keep the word economy in mind as you watch this. How , would you translate the economical movement you are seeing into action. How can you do less then you did on the last repeat?”


One quality that instantly crystallizes a lot of different skills and qualities that people are working on is silence.  Whenever we ask them to pay attention to the noise that they are making as they are doing the drill and ask them to do it more quietly–and this also works in whole stroke swimming–people swim incredibly more beautifully.  If somebody is swimming at 15 strokes a lap and I say “on the next one listen to yourself and then do it more quietly” almost inevitably they take one or two strokes less.


We also focus on qualities by asking if they sense any tension or resistance, “how much are you disturbing the water, who can create the least turbulence and leave the least wake.”  When I go to an aquarium and watch fish, I see no turbulence, no disturbing of the water, no bubbles. Whether they go fast or lazily, I don’t see evidence of trying.  I think it makes sense that if I can get swimmers to be more like fish they are going to swim better and as it happens they do. The emphasis on qualities is a way of leading them to thinking in these ways.


How you solicit feedback from swimmers when you teach is important. This is something I had to retrain myself on. After teaching something I would be so convinced that it was right, that after they did it I would say “doesn’t that feel better” and wanting to please me they’d say yes. Now, I don’t think that I’m smart enough to know everything that is going on in their body and so that when I say “Your head was a bit too high, look down more on the next lap,” when they get to the end of the lap, instead of saying “doesn’t that feel better?” Now I say “tell me how that feels different.” If they simply say ” better,” then I ask for a more vivid, colorful, description of exactly how that felt different. I’ll have them do it again, until they can give me a more detailed description of how that felt different, not just better, but different. “Tell me everything that feels different, like how does your arm feel when you do that, how do your hips feel when you do that, how does your kick feel when you do that?”  This makes them attend to what they are doing and there is nothing more valuable to a swimmer. This is so different from what normally happens in workout which too often leads them to turn their mind off. Our whole goal is to get them to attend to what they are doing, to engage them every minute.


While coaching at West Point, we did an incredible amount of really slow swimming. If they were going at a certain speed and I wasn’t satisfied with the movement quality I’d say “slow down to the speed where you can do it smoothly.” We did a lot of super-slow swimming and I asked them to describe how it felt, describe to your lane mate how it feels, pick out something your lane mate can do better and help them do it based on how you feel when you do it. But the most important feedback I got from them is not only did they swim a lot faster than before, but they loved to come to practice. They also told me that all that thinking and decision making that went on during practice, equipped them for other things that they had to do at the academy.


They also said, the thing to understand about West Point is that it is four years of sleep deprivation. They get used to it, but that doesn’t mean that training on top of that isn’t really debilitating. They found that the training we did wasn’t debilitating. They had energy to do the other things they needed to do. And that whole process is a loop, which makes them multi-dimensional athletes who a) enjoy what they are doing, b)are always engaged by what they are doing, c) are equipped to coach themselves in practice and in races. That’s good for everybody including you.


I have recognized for a long time that I do my best coaching when I’m swimming regularly. In order for me to teach intuitively I have to have language to describe how things feel, I have to have experienced the difficulties that people will experience when they are trying to learn something.  My understanding of all of it is way more intuitive when I swim before I coach.


One of the things that we’ve made a standard requirement for the coaches that work with us is they have to start by taking a workshop, they have to do what they are going to teach before they work for us. So that they don’t just know it in their head, they know it in their bones, and when they have visceral understanding of what they’re going to teach, they are just much better at teaching it. It is really important to continue that process, to be developing yourself as a swimmer so you can be more effective of helping other people, develop as a swimmer.


One thing I do every year, is I take a workshop or camp in some sport I’m not good at. Two years ago it was cross country skiing. I’d been doing the classic style of cross country skiing for about 7 years and I took a camp in the freestyle or skating style. I was the worst klutz in the class. The first day I took a two hour class with my wife and daughters. The very first skill we did, was put one ski in the track and push off and glide and balance on that ski, push off glide and balance on that ski until you lose your momentum.  That was supposed to be about ten minutes of the two hours, but when we completed it I hadn’t learned balance. I was still falling off my ski. When we progressed to a series of about six or eight more skills, I just got worse and worse in each successive one. As the last step, we were supposed to go off and ski a 3-K loop. Instead, I went back to that track and took off one ski and spent 90 minutes just doing that simple exercise until I could do it without struggling, without tension. I did it until I felt a flow develop. Then I spent the afternoon going through the others with which I had previously struggled.


And it wasn’t until the second year we went through that whole process again and we spent time learning to skate around without poles and then the instructor said “O.K. pick up your poles” and I picked up the poles and right away, I was feeling like those people looked or at least I imagined I was feeling like those people looked and it was totally joyful.

Last year I went to a sculling camp and spent a week just learning not to dump the boat, because racing shells are really tippy. But at the end of the week I had learned to stay balanced for more than 20 strokes. It really helps me be a better teacher, if I periodically go through the learning struggle myself.  So in addition to being a swimmer, being a student of physical skills and putting your self into situations where you are experiencing what the people you are teaching are also experiencing will help you teach better.


Now I’ll take questions on any topic as long as we have time.  The question here is a lot of kids love to race and don’t have the concentration or patience needed for learning. At our summer camps, we have 36 kids in the pool and 12 to 15 coaches on deck because we train coaches how to teach at these camps as well. One of the comments the coaches made after the first day was “they’re not just learning how to swim, they are learning how to learn.” A lot of kids don’t know how to learn and you have to teach them that before you can teach them to swim.


We got their attention and motivated them through what we recognized and congratulated. We had beauty contests. After we taught a drill we would divide the kids up into 6 heats of six kids and we would send them down the lane with three of the coaches judging the beauty contest. We’d have a winner in each heat, and then we would have a final. Pretty soon they were highly motivated to do those drills impeccably.  We also had three-point scoring tests. The kids would do a drill for 25  yards and each coach would be assigned to score one or two swimmers. I would say, for instance, “you get one point for having your head hidden, one point for having your arm showing and one point for just being very still and stable. At the end of the length, the coach would say “O.K. you got two points, one for hiding your head, and one for showing your arm but your shoulder was ratcheting back and forth so you didn’t get the third point.” They would be anxious to earn that third point.


We would start the sessions with beauty contests or scoring in order to get their attention, because they would get into the pool and they have all this energy to burn, it would be hard to get them to concentrate, so we’d give them about four laps to play, and then we would do a beauty contest or scoring test, and as soon as we did, we would have their attention and the rest of the session they would be really tuned in.  So it is all a question of what you congratulate, what you show approval for, what you get excited about, kids respond to that.  We also had them score themselves, we had them score each other. They were much tougher judges than we were, but they had a lot of fun doing that, so they learned a process for learning.


Ashley asked when using demonstrators is it a good thing for the coach to get in and demonstrate as opposed to using one of them. There is value as I said in using peer modeling, but at the same time there is also value in them seeing the coach do it, because maybe you won’t do it perfectly, and they can see that you have to work on it too. To some extent it’s a personal style issue. I like to coach from on deck, Glenn loves to get into the water and he teaches really effectively from in the water. I don’t think that I do that as well, but I wasn’t on the Olympic team and he was.


The question is if you only have three sessions a week with a kid, how long do you stay with basics like head-lead balance. One, you judge it based on their mastery. Do they still need to learn more about it. Two you might, instead of doing eight laps of head lead, you might just do two or four at the beginning and then move to next thing. After all these years of coaching, you develop an eye, you know when a swimmer is ready to progress. And don’t feel like you have to be on a schedule. Teach at the pace they are learning.


The question is on how young can you start teaching these skills. We’re going to show you tomorrow that three year olds can do it, it’s just a question of how you apply it. What you will see on the video tomorrow is when you have a non swimmer you give full support and expose them to the idea that I can relax, that I don’t have to struggle while I am in here. So if I can relax with full support and learn to have my head in the right position, get comfortable with the idea that when I’m on back the water is right there, and I’m not gonna resist that, I’m not gonna get tense about that, and then gradually I will reduce the support, and maybe at some point you’ve just got a finger there before you finally let go.


Our paradigm for learn to swim is to end up at the same place as the video we showed yesterday by a process that starts with as much help as necessary and gradually withdraws the help. Most learn to swim is about kicking hold the wall and kick, hold the board, kick, hold my hands, kick. What we are going to be showing you is minimizing the kicking and learning to flow with ease and without tension, but three years old I would say is possible.


The question is about making choices about how much time to devote to teaching vs. training and when do you let kids race.  My two younger daughters took gymnastics for a while. Because it’s expensive, I volunteered to be an assistant teacher, one day a week. I was really impressed that when kids came into the gymnastics program, there was no thought whatsoever to them competing in the first year. There was no competition until they had spent at least a year developing basic skills. That made a lot of sense to me as opposed to most of our swimming situations: a week or a month after you join the team, you are in a meet.  I would be in favor of a longer entry time for developing basic skills before kids started competing, and then only competing within the group and initial exposure to competition within the group that is more a beauty contest then it is swimming fast and gradually increasing the exposure to competition.


The other side of how much time to teach is however long it takes. I’m really of the opinion that if we want our swimmers to maximize their potential, then we have to model them on what the best swimmers in the world do. The best swimmers in the world do not struggle. Guided by that, you progress up the skills ladder with the things they can do with fluency. At some point they are able to swim at a certain speed with fluency and you feel that they can do something that might be a little bit more like training. But I always say remind myself, there is no workout you can design, whether in the weight room or in the pool, that can overcome the drag you create by being inefficient.  So, in most stages of a kid’s career before they get to the elite or national level, I still think that I can produce more progress and performance potential by teaching then I can by another 30 minutes of training.  And I think that is it, that’s all the time we have.

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