Owning Your Own Swim Team by Joseph Bernal (1996)


Joseph Bernal’s success with competitive swimming began as a collegiate swimmer in which he attained an All American status. After graduation he briefly pursued a public relations career at Avery Knodell Public Relations firm on New York’s Madison Avenue. He then went into the military where upon discharge, his desire to have a positive effect to develop the lives of young people led to a job as a high school science teacher. This, in turn helped prepare him for his passion: swimming. Joe developed the Bernal Gators Swim Club while head coach at Fordham University and Fordham Preparatory School in 1968. Coach Bernal developed and coached Bobby Hacket, world record holder in the 800 meter freestyle. At 15 years of age in 1976, Hacket was the youngest male swimmer ever to make the Olympics and won the silver medal.

He holds the third fastest time in the 1500 meter freestyle of any American swimmer. In 1978 Coach Bernal became the head coach at Harvard University and Aquatic Director. He relocated the Gator Swim Club and continued to operate the club in New Your for two years. In 1988 he coached David Berkoff who broke the world record in the 100 meter backstroke and revolutionized the backstroke. Coach Bernal was on the 1980 and 1988 Olympic Coaching staffs and was head coach at the Pan American team in Havana Cuba.

I am excited that there are people who are interested in owning their own business. The attendance here tells a story of its own. There are not many coaches in the room. Anyway, I am excited there are some people who are ready to explore the pros and cons of owning your own business.

Coaches have a difficult transition from coach to business person. When you imagine a self employed coach you think of a coach who starts when he feels like it, stops when he wants to, and at the same time makes money. In my twenty seven years of owning my business it is safe to say that the fantasy is far more attractive then the reality.

I would like to talk about some of the pros of owning your own business. This talk is not on how to run your business but whether you would want to attempt owning your own business. So let’s begin the pro side.

The first pro is the opportunity to try your own ideas, your visions and goals. You are the president of the company and you inherit the responsibility of organizing, managing, hiring, firing and even coaching when you get a chance. You have the responsibility for your team’s philosophy. You make the major decisions without consulting a parent’s organization which is an asset when time is of the essence. Sometimes with parent groups they cannot act quickly enough on a decision and the moment is gone. You determine the budget for your business and you determine your own financial rewards. You are responsible to direct the budget in the way you think best suits the needs of the team. This control is extremely valuable and can help you keep the team or business going in the proper direction.

The second pro is control in owning your own business, the third if freedom. There is a difference between control and freedom, freedom is the ability to choose what you feel is important regarding every aspect of the business. You have freedom in budget, membership, dues, staffing, staff salary (including your own) and team travel. So, you have a great deal of freedom when you own your own business.

I call my team a business because as coaches we think of team as training, meetings with swimmers about goals and practice. The freedom of picking your staff is important. Many times when you come to teams that are parent owned you inherit staff. When you own your business you pick your staff.

You also have the freedom to pick the parents you want in volunteer positions. When you pick parents you also delegate responsibility but not authority. I think this is very important. Parents in a volunteering position have responsibility to the club and to you. Parents should not have the authority to change the program.

The other freedom you have is the people you want to service. In other words you can coach who you want, you do not have to keep swimmers you feel will be detrimental to the program. You do not have to sit down with a board or committee to review your actions. You make the judgment because it affects your business. When things affect your business you need to take action, you cannot wait to sit down with a parent committee.

You also have the freedom to deal with dealers and sponsors. The people in the exhibit hall such as Speedo, Nike, and TYR are in business too. When you work with them you do so as a business person and not as a beggar looking for a suit on the deck for a swimmer who made nationals late. With the dealers you can sit down with them and offer them a business contract. So keep in mind that you are in position to sit down with dealers and sponsors and offer them a contract in return for your business.

An example of this is my team warm up. We get a Boat House warm up which normally goes for $180 for $75 and it is a top rate warm-up. We also work with a particular dealer in the area and we guarantee that all of our team business will go through that dealer. In return the dealer gives us a percentage 15% or 20% of whatever we purchase goes back to me or the team. When you run a meet the dealers may work out a deal with you. Many of these things are not easy to do with a parent owned organization.

Another freedom is the location of your team. When you own your own business you can be any location that you want. An example is that I started the Gator Swim Club in 1969 in New York, after working there for eight years I moved to Boston. I move the Gators Swim Club to Boston with me. In fact for two years I kept the New York Gators and the Boston Gators going at the same time. The beauty of owning your own business is that you can open in another area if you decide to. It is just a matter of renting another pool.

The fourth pro is flexibility. As the owner you have the ability to change the direction of your business at any time. You can change budget items, change allocation of money and move money toward a particular need. This kind of flexibility is important to the success of the program. When you work with committees or for someone you have to go through a variety of meetings and processes to evaluate things. You often lose the moment.

You can change staff positions according to team needs. Many teams allocate staff permanently to a particular group or groups. When you make the decisions you can cover another pool or a particular meet with a staff member without asking to make a change. You organize training sessions according to the needs of the team. Programs are often set up where seniors train at a set time and juniors train at another time, age groupers still another time. You can also make schedule changes without asking.

You have the power of decision making to accomplish your team goals. Teams that go to the same meet year after year because that is what parents want are not always doing what is best for the team. I can decide where the team is going. We can go to Canada or Orlando. I do not answer to my parents as to why we are making the decision to travel. I do try to educate my parents as to why I am making this decision.

Another area of freedom is your ability to adjust your compensation, your salary according to the success of your business.

The fifth pro is pride. When my business is out there, it reflects my ideas. When you work for an organization you have to compromise with others. When it is your team you take pride in doing what you feel is the correct thing to be doing. You take pride in the service rendered. Many people work for organizations and after a while they lose pride. When you own your business you will put an enormous amount of pride in the business. Pride in the philosophy and the professionalism of yourself and staff.

I take a great deal of pride in my staff. My staff does not work for me they work with me. My staff is treated like professionals. In fact we are having the coaches in the satellite programs share in the development of the business. The coach is making the business successful.

The sixth pro is no compromises. By that I mean you have pride that you do not have to kiss up to anyone. Pride is a great ingredient of owning your own business.

The seventh and last pro is the recognition and status that you gain as a business man in your community. In fact parents look at you differently; they see you as a professional or as a business man in the community. The community sees you as a valuable person who can create and generate business for the community. Your status in the community is not just as a coach it, is also as a business person in the community.

These are the seven major areas that are the great positives of owing your own club. I was asked not to be prejudiced one way or the other but I cannot help it if after 27 years there are some very positive aspects to owning your own team.


How do you convince parents to join a coach owned team?

You will need to convince parents that athletes will benefit from your ownership. Parents are ready to accept this if it will help their children and help to make their swimming more successful.

How can you sell an organized club the benefits of a coach owned team?

You have to be able to demonstrate to them that you can take the headaches of running an organization and as a professional and be able to direct things toward success for the children.

How did you go about setting up your own team?

When I decided to coach I did not want to deal with parents. I inherited that from where I grew up and swam. I swam for the Badger swim team with John Collins’s Father. He never wanted to deal with parents. He ran a very small exclusive club and parents had nothing to say about it. At first I thought parents should be involved.  After my first job working for a team in Larchmont, NY, I quickly learned why Jack Collins did not want to have parents involved.

Then I decided to run the program as I thought best fit my needs. Basically, I started coaching at Fordham University through a good friend Wellington Mara who owns the New York Giants. When I was at Badger Swim Club I used to coach his kids and when he heard that I was moving out to California to coach, he invited me to coach at Fordham University. At that time it was an interesting thought so I took that on and I asked if I could do a club at the same time. I structured the club the way I wanted it. I told the parents it was my business. I ran it and if they wanted to be part of it they were welcome to it but they had to abdicate certain things. That is how it started. It became very successful.

One of the things that I did was work very hard on informing and educating the parent on what we were doing. This is a very important part of running a successful business with swim team parents. You must keep them as informed as you possibly can. So at that point not only did Fordham University do quite well, the Gator swim club did well also. We had a lot of nationally ranked swimmers. We had an Olympic swimmer Bobby Hackett. This brought a lot of attention to our program. At that point I became the coach at Harvard. At that time it was also agreed that I would be able to run a club as part of my contract. The rest was history. Gators moved to Cambridge and became successful.

In fact in many instances it was too successful. Sometimes when the club becomes successful and as a business man you become very successful there are concerns that perhaps you are making too much money and administrators decided to scrutinize that. It was best to move my business at that time. We decided to part ways with Harvard University and we moved the business all around the perimeter of Harvard. We now enjoy a very successful enterprise. In fact we are now in New Hampshire, we have one satellite there and we are moving to the western part of the state. We probably will have 5 by the end of next year.

What programs do you run?

Our program runs the full gamut. We are implementing a master’s program, we have a learn to swim program we also now have a developmental program, a program that is designed for the swimmers who do not want to be committed to the discipline and structure of an elite program like Gators. In areas where we take over programs we keep the name of the program as a developmental program and we use that to keep some of the kids in swimming without a heavy commitment. If they want to go skiing for a week they go skiing and come back but they still have to pay their dues. This helps the total business and keeps kids in swimming.

Often these swimmers keep an eye on the elite program and eventually some of the kids say how do I get over there? Under the full umbrella of the business we are able to incorporate a program that supports an elite program and may also bring talent to the elite program. We also run clinics and camps and the learn to swim program has now become basically the golden cow of our business. I just do not have enough people to service all the learn to swim business out there. I know that there are people who have their own business and eventually they go into learn to swim because it is so lucrative.

Why do you think some coaches should not run their own business?

Some coaches may not want to take on the responsibilities. Another negative for coaches is financial security. I think that is why many coaches stay with parent run clubs or with institutions because of dependence on the weekly pay check. When you have your own team you have to be willing to invest your own money and resources into the business. There are a great number of coaches who are concerned about using their own money for a team. I think if you consider your team a business you will have an easier time investing your own money.

Owners have to be comfortable with not getting a regular pay check. If you are not comfortable with this your own team may not be a good idea for you. Remember we are talking about the negatives. The plus is if you are successful you can adjust your own compensation. You can reward yourself when things are going well.

Another negative is self reliance. You cannot run to a parent board and say HELP! Your are the owner no one is there to help and no one is going to be there to tell you how to deal with the challenges.

How many hours do you work?

I work 12-16 hours a day. When you are your own boss you can drive yourself very hard. You have the tendency to do this because you see the benefits of this kind of work.

If you are dreaming of enormous financial rewards you are not going to get them by owning a team. You should own a team out of personal pride, satisfaction, and a need to control your own destiny.

How do you work with your parents?

I always call my parents by their formal or full name it is more businesslike. It is important that you have a respectful business relationship with your parents. Then if you feel comfortable you can change things and relax a bit.

How do you pay your coaching staff?

We are working on incentives. If you grow the team you share in the profit. Your salary will increase. Because you brought up the income for that group. We want to keep good coaches so we motivate them to develop satellites and own a part of the team.

How do you keep the team together with so many different sites?

Everyone is required to train at the same facility on the weekend and we encourage that so the coaches all know the swimmers and the swimmers get to know the coaches and their other teammates.

Once a month we have a parents meeting in the same place. All the swimmers come and every one trains together from the elite to the age group swimmers. This helps foster the team spirit.

We put out a Gator Weekly that is information for the week and it goes out to every family. If parents do not show up at required meetings they get a friendly reminder. We have important handouts at these parents meetings about meets. If a parent does not come to the meeting they do not have the information. This is one way to get the parents to the meetings. You have to make the meeting important and informative.

How do you run you a meeting for so many different groups all at the same time?

We have a main meeting and then we break into smaller groups. This is usually done during Saturday morning training. Usually on the weekends the fathers show up.

What about profit verses nonprofit?

I would encourage coaches to start out as a non/profit and when the time is right switch to a for profit. A good accountant and a good attorney can help you with that. I was always trying to keep everything as nonprofit but there came a time when I was advised to change.

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