On the Liberation of Swim Coaches by Kent Porter (1972)


Ladies and gentlemen, having been deeply concerned, I wish to focus on some of the real problems affecting the American swimming coach.

It is time that we stop killing off our coaches by forcing them to live an unrealistic, inhumane way of life. We have great problems in three areas: working conditions, salary, and power.
Before we deal with each of these separately, I would like to refer you to a number of excellent books on the subject. The Slaughter of the Innocents is of course a very famous story about twelve assistant swimming coaches and their encounter with an irate swimming mother. Steinbeck’s famous Grapes of Wrath is the story of itinerant swim coaches in the 1960’s.
Of course you are familiar with Dante’s Inferno which is a brief analysis of the structure and function of the AAU. I need not remind you of the Taming of the Shrew which is my own story of how to handle age-group mothers. There is a French version of this which is illustrated and comes in a plain brown wrapper.

My remarks will be directed at the dedicated, hard-working, sincere swimming coach. As many of you, are aware, we. have some coaches in this profession who should not be allowed to coach pigs how to squeal. These people should be out of the profession, but unfortunately this is not always easy. The structure of the sport in this country is such that it lets these people into coaching easily, but it is then very difficult to get them out. Due to the problems referred to, we are stifling the creativity and killing off the potential artists among our young coaches. We allow an intelligent, enthusiastic coach to be subjected to so much harassment and so much garbage that his enthusiasm is killed and he gives up by saying, “Why should I think?”
The first problem I want to deal with is working conditions. Several years ago I became interested in the area of industrial motivation. Among my many interests and hobbies, has been the building of racing cars. I have thereby had to deal with machine shops. It can be very frustrating to have a deadline, go to the shop to pick up the needed part, and find that the hole is too small, too big, or drilled in the wrong place… When this happens, it becomes very apparent that something is wrong in this shop. This is true in our own profession – something is wrong with our shop.
If we should apply a corporate analysis system to swimming, our teams would be doomed to failure.

If we analyze the structure and function of most swim teams, we would find the incorporation statement and the bankruptcy statement stapled together and filed at the same time. The way we structure our swimming teams has become ridiculous. The chain of command in the typical corporation is President, Board of Directors, department heads, and employees. In the usual swimming team structure we find a corporation where all of the employees are children of the department heads who are also the Board of Directors. You are going to work for a corporation like that? Ridiculous!!Every employee is the child of a department (committee) head, who is also a director. You, as coach, want to do something that affects 100 employees: what are your chances of getting it done? This is the spot in which most swimming coaches find themselves.

Any organization needs to have some sort of structure. If the by-laws of your organization require committees, then you must have committees. However, we should study our needs and have only the committees absolutely needed to get the job done. We should cut out all the extraneous matter and determine what really needs to be done. We know swimmers need to get to and from workouts, they need to get to and from meets, they need.to know when and where meets are, they need to know when to pay their bills, and that is about it. Committees become great Loch Ness monsters when being chairman or president is more important than the jobs assigned to the committee. Sometimes the political maneuvering that goes with the election of officers of the Podunk Swim Club rivals anything in national political circles. All sorts of political ploys, all kinds of power plays, become commonplace. “We better put him on since his daughter is the best freestyler on the team”, or “We have to put her on because she’s always bitching”, is not the way to do it.

After you have decided what really needs to be done, and after you decide if committees are needed or necessary, you must determine what type of committee relationship you want to have with the coach. There are four basic types of committee structure 🙁 1) a parents committee with regular meetings, (2) no committee, but volunteer helpers, (3) a parents committee without regular meetings, and finally, (4) a committee with an outsider (non-parent) as chairman. All of these have good and bad points, but some types are more defective than others. Even under a no committee structure, where the coach asks for assistance, there are pitfalls. If the coach is not careful in his selection of helpers, he will be open to charges of “playing favorites” by some of the more neurotic parents, or the person who helps will expect to be repaid at some future time by some favored treatment of his child.

The direction in which many clubs are moving is the fourth type, a chairman who is not personally involved in the team. What you need is to find a person who is objective, can analyze problems, knows how to delegate authority, who has no emotional involvement in the business of the committee – and who is willing to do the job. In the future this may even be a salaried job. I feel that this is the direction in which we must move, because when a committee is good everything runs smoothly, but a bad committee is like sleeping in a bathtub full of snakes.

Another area under working conditions involves the pool. For example, who controls the water conditions? Who decides what the temperature will be? Who controls the chemical balance of the water? These are extremely important questions to you and your swimmers. Many pools operate under a compromise between the needs of the competitive swimmer and the occasional swimmer, or the swimming class. Some compromises are happily arrived at with diplomatic handling; others have to be brought by force. If your pool conditions are not satisfactory, above all don’t volunteer to do it for them – you will have a lifetime job. Find out who is responsible, find out who signs his check, and work up the line.
In the final analysis, the tax-paying parent, or the club-dues-paying parent may have to be brought into action by telling your swimmers to “go home today and tell your parents to call the director and say they will resign if the water is not straightened out immediately”. Sometimes if the man responsible is annoyed enough by phone calls at all hours of the day and night he will see that something is done. As a last resort, call the Public Health Department and file an anonymous complaint and try to get the Health Department to check the pool. If the pool is bad enough they will close the pool, or threaten to close it until something is done to improve the pool conditions. Other related problems include the condition of your locker rooms, lighting in your pool, heat and ventilation in your pool, and the conditions of the pool deck and surroundings. All of these can be handled in the same manner as the pool water conditions.

Now, I would not mind taking care of the water, the locker room, the deck, etc. But I would expect to be paid like a plumber; $25.00 per visit, $10.00 per hour to look after the water, no work after 4:00, four hours per day, five days per week, and $12,000 per year. I don’t mind repairing pace clocks, soldering, building new spindles, constructing new dials, but I want to be paid as an electrician. Maybe we would all be better off to be paid as plumbers or electricians.

Now I would like to discuss money – salaries. This will not take very long since there’s not much to talk about. There must be something wrong with money, because we avoid talking about it. To me, money is a sixth sense, and without it one cannot properly and fully use the other five. Very few coaches work with the truly underprivileged, most of us work with the upper thirty percent of the population in terms of per capita income. We, as coaches, are expected to be perfect, to give perfect advise, to set perfect examples, to make perfect decisions, and still live one step above welfare. This does not make sense. At the beginning of each season I make it perfectly clear to my parents that I am going to make mistakes. I tell them, “this year I am going to make 400 mistakes, this is four per family. So if you get only two mistakes, don’t bitch because someone else got six.”

In some swim clubs, the kids arrive in Cadillacs and Lincolns and the coach hopes his Volkswagen will hold together for another day. I have seen some situations where the coach was not allowed to enter the club; he could not eat there, change clothes, or in any way be part of the club. Many coaches are treated more like the house slaves in the Old South, than like professionals. Don’t accept such an undignified status. Don’t accept starvation wages, because this does you personally a disservice as well as the entire profession. It is very difficult to make a general statement about salaries because of the many variables. I will discuss some bargaining methods

To obtain a decent salary, you must assess your bargaining position before entering into negotiations. There are strong, medium, and weak bargaining positions. The strongest possible position would be a situation where you have the best reputation in the area and there are ten clubs that want the best possible program. The other extreme would be a situation where you are a newcomer with a limited background, many teams in the area with many qualified coaches. Another weak position would occur if you had a good background, the best in the area, but nobody cares if they have a good program or not – this is most frustrating. In such a club, the membership has decided to have a swimming team, so they decide to hire a coach without really caring who it is, they could care less about quality. With such a club, Forbes and Ursula Carlile could walk in and offer both of their services for $5,000 and they would turn them down because it was too expensive.

Now let’s talk about a contract. Do not accept a “gentlemen’s agreement”. All this says is, “We don’t know how long we want you to stay around, and we don’t really want to be committed.” Negotiate a contract to protect yourself in salary and other fringe benefit areas. Here are some things that should be spelled out in your contract. The first point would deal with the coach’s duties. Are your duties to mop the floor, wash the windows, babysit? If you accept these things as part of your duties and the pay is satisfactory, then have it written in your contract. If your duties are to spend two hours a day, six days a week, with thirty senior swimmers of your choosing, have it spelled out clearly in your contract. Every major point should be in concrete terms in the contract, especially your hours. We all foul up on not having our hours clearly spelled out.

Imagine a corporate structure in which a job applicant says, “I want a job.” The employer says, “That’s fine. We work from 6:30 in the morning to 8:00 at night, seven days a week, including holidays. You will be required to travel at your own expense to forty out-of-town jobs per year – usually on Saturdays and Sundays. We do not pay very much and there are no bonuses and no fringe benefits. When do you want to start?” Even a wino applying for a job sweeping floors would say, “Never! “A swimming coach would say, “Would today be too late?”

Think about your working conditions. I know that most of you do not make a living from coaching – you have a major job in addition to coaching swimming. Now think about applying the standards of your coaching job to your full-time profession. You could laugh yourself silly. We get ourselves into these ridiculous working situations because we do not structure our jobs properly and we do not demand better conditions.

A number of years ago when I worked with emotionally disturbed children, a very calm and collected psychiatrist gave me the greatest piece of advice I have ever heard. I was very uptight because I was late for a meeting, when I called him, he said, “You will be very surprised how well the children will do without you. “I have always remembered this, and I think it can be applied to our profession. Some coaches think that if they miss a workout the whole team will leave and join the team down the street – this is not true. Your team will do very well without you. What this all means is that in your contract, be sure you specify days off and vacations – you need them and your swimmers need for you to have them.

Now in terms of salary, it is important that you know exactly how much you are making. Know if you are paid by the hour, by the week, by the month, and when you are going to receive it. Don’t accept, “We will pay you when we have the money. “Don’t accept, “If you do a good job, we will double your salary.” Have in your contract the exact conditions under which your salary will be raised, how it will be negotiated, and when. Have you ever heard of overtime in a coach’s contract? It shouldbe there. If you cannot arrange for extra money for extra hours, arrange compensatory time off for extra hours worked.There should be written into your contract benefits such as health insurance, life insurance, accident insurance, and sick benefits. You should not have to take care of these matters in private policies; your employer should include these benefits in your contract. A swimming pool is a very dangerous place and you should see that you are protected in case of accident and injury.

Most coaches will make workouts even if they are half-dead but you should stay home if you are ill. You tell your swimmers to go home and go to bed if they appear at workout with a cold, why not give yourself the same advice? You should also have in your contract a provision to have your dues paid to ASCA and to such other appropriate professional organizations. Have it written into your contract that the club will pay your expenses to the ASCA Annual Clinic and to the indoor and outdoor nationals. It must be understood that these professional experiences are a fundamental part of your job. Also have in your contract that the club will pay your expenses to local meets. In other words, do not leave anything to chance. Protect yourself fully by having every possible situation provided for in your contract.

In summing up about salary and contracts, decide if you are in a strong or weak bargaining position and then use common sense. Do not demand a salary that is unreasonable and which you may not be worth, especially if you are in a weak bargaining position. The result of this is obvious. Be realistic as to what you can expect to receive in way of salary and benefits, don’t ask for too much but don’t sell out to starvation.

I want now to talk about power, without power you cannot do much about the things we have discussed today. Perhaps we need to explore some principles of power; how it is given and how it is used. Power is simply the ability to influence the actions and decisions of others. There are many sources of power. Knowledge is the primary source of power at this stage in the history of man. What this means is that the better your background, the more you know, the more you can get away with.

There is a difference between power and authority, a difference between sanctioned and informal power. Sanctioned power means, “I am the Mayor, and thus I have many powers that come with this office.” This would be a socially sanctioned source of power. Informal power means, “I am a representative of a citizen group which does not want the subway going through their neighborhood.” They raise a great hue and cry opposing the will of the Mayor. This would illustrate a clash between sanctioned power and informal power. There is a very important difference between power and leadership.

A person who possesses power may coerce and force other to follow him; this is not necessarily leadership. Leadership is a voluntary social relationship. One who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool, but a fool can always find a larger fool to follow him. How does your team see you? Do they see you as a power figure they must follow or else? Or, do they see you as a leader they are willing to follow? There is a big difference, and these situations exist in our profession. There are many teams where the swimmers follow the coach only because he is a source of power, they really don’t like him and he could not really lead them to the Dairy Queen. Other teams would follow their coach anywhere. The ideal situation is to be seen as a leader who possesses enough power to protect the swimmers from outside forces – this would be a secure and stable environment.

Authority can be given but power must be earned. Given authority usually contains limited and rigidly defined powers. As the coach of your club you have certain elements of authority because of the position, but to make your club influential and powerful in your area is a different situation which must be earned. The established holders of power prefer cooperation to conflict.
Cooperation means that we will play the old game by the old rules. This would appear to be the AAU position. Conflict is disturbing because it is a new game played by new rules and established power is threatened. The easiest power to obtain is the power to veto; the hardest power to obtain is the power to initiate and implement. It may take five people to veto an idea, but it might take 100 people to successfully counter-propose another idea. This is the minority struggle that goes on constantly in the United States; a very few people can create a large noise by vetoing, but it would take a much larger number to implement counter-proposals and get them accepted.

Finally, the acquisition of power frequently changes the holder. This is easier to see in others than in ourselves. It is easy for me to say that the other fellow is corrupted and dirty with power, but I am not. In summary, I have given you a few of my ideas concerning working conditions, salary and power. I feel that swimming coaches must work very hard to improve our profession; we must strive for better working conditions, better salary, and the proper exercise of power.

Dedication is a beautiful thing. Self-sacrifice may be commendable, but no coach ever won a meet by dying for his swim team.

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