Qualities of Successful Masters Coaches by Scott Rabalais (2003)


Those of you who are new to the ASCA Clinic may not know that having a Masters track here at the ASCA Clinic is something new. We have only had this for two years now, so we are very excited about having a Masters presence at ASCA. We hope to continue it in the years to come and have it grow and become more of an attraction and a very integral part of this clinic. I have been a masters coach for twenty years, just to give you a little background on myself. Just a couple of years after graduating and getting out of college swimming, I jumped around to few different jobs. I did this until I was asked to coach.
One of the first coaching positions I was asked to jump into was masters coaching. When I first started I said, “yeah, I can do this for a couple of weeks, and maybe I will help out a little bit” and so I went through the two weeks. I then decided to stay on a little bit more and maybe do this for a few months and a few months turned into a few years. Even after five or ten years, I was thinking, “well I’ll just do this one more year.” Really it wasn’t until I got to close to ten years of masters coaching that I decided, “I don’t think I can live without this stuff.” It kind of grew on me over the years, certainly my attitudes and philosophies have changed, and I certainly feel a lot more passionate about what I do now than when I started.
I have had a chance to get to know a lot of masters coaches and that is actually how I formed this talk. I emailed a lot of my friends and fellow coaches and asked them to submit a quality or a number of qualities that they felt were important for them and their development as masters coaches. I was very pleased that in almost every case they responded and gave some great qualities and great explanations of those qualities. As I go through this talk, what I would like for you to do is a little bit of a self-evaluation. As you read each of these qualities, ask yourself these simple questions: is this one of my strengths? Is this one of my weaknesses? Is this something I want to work on and implement more into my personality or my character? Perhaps a year from now you can look back and realize, I have become more of this quality or I have developed this or try to use this.
Take home a couple of these qualities that you can start to work on in regard to your coaching. As I go through these qualities I am going to sort of move from what I call the inner to the outer. As I reviewed these qualities, I found that there were some that dealt more with us on an inner sense – our personality and our character and our development as people. There were other qualities that tended to be more about how we interact with other people. Certainly, both of these are important and it turned out about, half were what I call inner qualities and half were outer qualities. So we are going to move from the inner to the outer as we go through this.
Also, if you have some other qualities that you want to submit we will hopefully have some time at the end of the talk for you to add them. Talking to some of my fellow coaches, they have already discussed three or four, that may not be in the presentation, which they would like to add this afternoon. Before I do get started let me just give you a brief introduction of myself. As I mentioned I have been coaching masters for twenty years. Two years ago I moved to Savannah, Georgia and I coach Savannah Masters. I actually formed the team there and we have got about 80 swimmers right now and are growing pretty quickly. I serve as Vice-President of the United States Masters Swimming. I am the meet director for the long course national championships next year that will be in Savannah, but actually my full time job is head coach at the Savannah College of Art and Design. It is a small art and design school in Savannah, about 6,000 students and this will be our first year offering a swim program. We are part of the NAIA, so we are very excited about building this program, so if you guys know any graphic designers, architects, computer artists out there send them to me and we will take care of them in Savannah.

Emmett Hines from Houston, Texas (H2Ouston Swims) talked about passion and I put this one first on purpose. I think this is sort of a consummate quality of any coach, that they are passionate about coaching and passionate about swimming. Emmett says:

Anyone can learn to teach technique. Anyone can learn to train athletes. Anyone can learn to administer programs. Anyone can learn to motivate people. Passion is what motivates a coach to do all those things and then put them to work for a group of people. Passion is what makes the coach do whatever it takes to start, build and improve a program over time. Passion is what keeps a coach learning and striving for personal improvement year after year. A coach’s passion for what he does and for the person he works with is the base upon which a coach/athlete relationship is built. Passion is the thing that shines through to your swimmers and makes the difference between whether you are their coach or just a coach.

I know personally in my life that there is a lot of passion. I need a lot of passion to get out of bed at 4:30 in the morning, I think all of you can relate to that and that is certainly what drives me. I really don’t have that much of a problem doing it because when the alarm goes off, what clicks into my mind is I have this group of people that I truly care about. They are waiting for me and I am there to help them, I get along with all of them, we have a good time, we have a workout, and get positive things out of that. As I mentioned earlier, passion can be something that can grow over time. If you are a relatively new masters coach in your first year or two, give it some time to cultivate. We don’t expect masters coaches to walk into a masters career and from Day 1 be gung ho and going crazy about what they are doing. As you listen to Jim, Chris and some of the others tomorrow, which have been in masters coaching for eight, ten or more years, you will find that obviously they have become very passionate about what they do. Feel free to jump in at any time – offer comments.

Ed Nestle coaches in Edison, New Jersey with the Garden State Masters and was involved in our recent National Championship up at Rutgers. Ed says:

No matter what the day has brought to you personally, no matter what life has flung your way in the recent or distant past, no matter how you feel at the moment – it is show time when you take charge of your swimmers. One can seek knowledge, one can gain experience, and one can develop a unique style of coaching and presentation, but never fake enthusiasm.

If one wants to become an outstanding coaching personality one must remember to consistently bring enthusiasm to the pool. Body language, intonation and facial expression all contribute to an enthusiastic presentation. One of the best examples of this sort of making this switch into this certain personality that you have on the deck I have always thought as Johnny Carson and I grew up on Johnny Carson – a lot of you did and when he had a bad day and the curtain flew open, he came out. I read in an interview one time, that was his moment that it clicked in and his personality that he had on stage was very different than what he had say at home. He is very, even now, he is very much to himself, very quiet, likes to stay inside, but on stage he was a magician and I use sort of that same mechanism. We have a front door to our pool and literally when I walk through that front door it is a conscious thought of mine that now I am the coach. Even to the extent that when I am coaching I am much more sociable, not that I am antisocial, but I am much more sociable on the deck than I am say around my house. Even when I am in the parking lot and I am approaching that front door. If there are people in the parking lot and I haven’t turned on that personality yet, I just don’t feel like talking to them, but as soon as I walk in that door. How are you all doing today? Good to see you all. It clicks on so you may use that. Find a door, a tree or something you walk by and click it on and turn on that personality. I don’t find it is artificial at all. I just find that that is what is going to naturally come out, but there is a trigger in that mechanism that tends to sort of turn that personality on at the right time.

Paul Huttinger who actually, I believe created Florida Maverick Masters down in St. Petersburg, Florida offered this next one. This is an interesting team because I think they are, well they seem to be all about 60 years old and older. At least their competitive group at nationals and they hold a lot of the records for these relays, which are compromised of 60 and 70 and 80 year olds. Paul holds quite a few world records in backstroke, but as far as empathy goes Paul says:

Masters swimmers lifestyles include jobs and families. Not all swimmers can or want to make a team workout. Some prefer to workout alone. Not all of your team can do a 5,000 to 6,000 yard workout but may be valuable team members. Many programs are available for the slower swimmers. Open water and postal swims are viable events as our fitness program such as swim to Catalina and virtual swims where you log in your pool laps. Fitness swimmers may end up as excellent postal event swimmers. Find out what competitive and fitness swimmers need and give them encouragement and recognition.

I do believe this is very important, particularly in masters coaching. Jim Montgomery and I have talked and I have talked to a lot about masters coaching over the last day or so. I know one of the things that we talk about is understanding where our customer is coming from and they are indeed customers in our business. No different than someone who goes into a restaurant to eat. Mel Goldstein and I were talking about how we need to service that customer. One of the ways to do that is to get out of yourself and get into the shoes or suit of the other person, those of you in sales, know this technique well. Take a look back at yourself and by doing that mentally we are able to ascertain what the needs are, what the wants and desires are of that customer. Then we can create our responses. That is basically what Paul is saying. We have got to have the knowledge of what the swimmer wants.

Janet Renner who coaches in Hawaii offered this next one. Janet was actually meet director of the Hawaii Masters Nationals and is a very active coach. She has been to Olympic training center camps and she says:
As masters swimmers we have committed our selves to embarking on a lifetime of fitness and we, as coaches are critical in supporting our athletes in achieving their goals, both short and long-term. Our swimmers also will thrive on the attention they are receiving from their coach. Knowing that we care enough to offer our expertise in guiding them on their lifetime path of physical fitness.

Referring back again to Jim’s talk and how he talked about having 150 swimmers who had been with him for at least ten years. That is interesting because those relationships are important. We are not dealing with young children or even college athletes where we may spend four or five years with them. It may end up being twenty years or thirty years if we stay in coaching for a long time. I think in terms of development, we certainly need to see it more long-term, since we are going to be with these athletes over a very long period relative to other forms of coaching. To me patience comes in those moments on the pool deck when you explain the warm-up. I basically work verbally now. At my practices I write up the workouts or type them out, then when you deliver the warm-up, they are all standing right there and they are all looking at you. Typically when I say a warm-up, I will say it two or three times and then say, “Lets get started.” Probably half the group didn’t even hear what I said, so I have got to do it again. There are a couple left and I have to do it again and then you get the late swimmers coming in and you say it again and again. You may deliver the warm-up eight or ten times and I think those are the moments when I find I need to have more patience than in any other times. Its just once again going back to understanding maybe I have said it ten times, but I haven’t said it ten times to this one person. They may not have heard it at all or maybe they are distracted by thoughts of their job or something going on in their family. So I have to understand that and be as patient as I can in my delivery.

Mo Chambers is actually from the Southern California area and Mo talks about having heart as a masters coach. She says:

One of the biggest challenges that faces the masters swim coach is how to create an environment where every swimmer, regardless of age, ability or interest can excel and achieve their goals. The coaches at the helms of our most successful programs have done exactly that. They have taken a pool full of swimmers from competitive swimmers to fitness swimmers, from 19 year olds to 99 year olds from stay at home moms to PhD scientists and have meshed them into one team. No swimmer’s goal is less important than another’s. No swimmer’s achievements are less important than another’s. Every team member has been made to feel like an integral part of the whole. The team is bound by the spirit and the heart of the leadership. Everybody wins. Individuals are inspired to achieve, the team’s heart grows deeper and the coaches passion is fed. To me this is success.

That was a beautiful job. And that is not easy to do. It is a lot easier to say, “I just want these people to feed my ego. I am going to give them a workout and they better do it like I want them to do it. Everybody is going to work out for this particular reason and move in this direction.” It is much more difficult say if you have 25 swimmers in the water to deliver something to each of these that is somewhat unique to them and to be in touch with each of them even in somewhat of an emotional way. It takes a lot of work to do that and a lot of studying of individuals, but when you can create a situation like this for someone who comes off the street. They walk into an environment where all the people feel very appreciated for who they are and what their goals and objectives are and the coach has this appreciation for them. It is a tremendous experience and to me that is truly what creates growth in a program, that particular environment.

Personal Growth
Successful masters coaches desire personal growth. Kerry O’Brien is up in Walnut Creek, California. This particular quality fits Kerry very well. He is a very well rounded individual. He is a great swimmer, a great person and a very positive influence on many people. He is the type of individual who will do those things that will make him grow both as a person and as a coach. It is really an honor to know Kerry. Kerry says:

Successful masters coaches will continually put themselves in positions that will create personal growth as a professional and a team leader. This can come in the form of attending clinics, publishing articles, volunteer coaching at a different level and just plain thinking outside the box. Have a plan and make that plan public so you can be held accountable.

These are great words of wisdom. I think, just by the fact that you guys are here at this clinic. Some of you are leaving families or other things that are important to you for several days, some of you flying across the country to be here so that you can further your education as a coach. You are putting yourself in the position to where you can grow. I like the idea about coaching at a different level so you get a little different perspective on swimming, but I think we all come across an opportunity where we can make ourselves grow. Jim Montgomery knows a tremendous amount about swimming, but goes in and buys the videos and wants to learn more and that is what the great coaches do. They are continually open to more knowledge and personal growth.

A Love for Swimming
Successful masters coaches have a love for swimming. Kris Houchens is head coach at Indy Swim Fit in Indianapolis. What she says about a love for swimming:

Although there are differences of ability, goals and commitment in adults who swim in masters, one thing brings them all together and that is their love for swimming. If you can recognize this quality in all of your master swimmers you will see the program grow. I think coaching satisfaction comes form watching your swimmers abilities improve at the various levels, not just from those athletes that compete at the highest level. You don’t have to have the most expensive and flashiest car to enjoy the drive, but a good air conditioner or coach makes it all that more enjoyable.

I have no idea what that means but it sounds pretty good. What I think this means is that we could all swim in programs where the coach is just kind of there or whatever, but certainly if we have a coach that connects with us, knows a lot about us, and is there to help us. It certainly makes the ride a little bit more pleasant.

Next is from Eric Nielsen who lives here in San Diego. A lot of you probably know his wife Carlin. Carlin and Eric coach at San Diego Swim Masters and this is what Eric says about belief:

So often the swimmers will set limitations on what he or she thinks they can accomplish or achieve. A good coach will believe in his or her swimmers and get them to do the things they once thought were impossible.

I am sure all of us to some degree or another have been athletes at some time in our lives, if not now, previously. You can relate to the experience when all of us deal with doubts at one time or another. To have someone that you trust in, it could have been your coach, it could have been someone else who simply came up to you and said “you are going to do a great job in this race” or “you are going to go your best time” or “you are going to kick butt.” Just that simple statement, that belief that they had in you, that can transform you in a moment. I think simple little statements that come from us, whether it is somebody is going to have a great workout or they are going to be able to descend a set or do a best time in a time trial in practice. If we are constantly conveying those thoughts to the swimmers, it may not mean that much to us, but it probably means a whole lot more to those people who are receiving those comments. When I am coaching, I am throwing out these seeds of belief to this person and that person. Hopefully, those will sort of cultivate in their mind and they grow more confident and perform better whether it be in training or in competition.

Next up we have Don Mel from El Paso. Don has a tough job. He is coach of the Rio Grande Swim Club in El Paso and he has to train all the Mexicans who swim across the Rio Grande. Most of them are kind of novice swimmers so he is dealing with that level, but Don says:

I think a masters swimming coach needs to have the ability to somehow determine what the swimmer truly wants from their participation. It may not be to become faster or fitter, it may just be the camaraderie, the social events or the person in the next lane. Maybe it is to relax or rehab or just chill out. Sometimes we tend to think people are swimming for the same reasons that we our selves are swimming.

Making that assumption can drive people away. I tell all my swimmers, beginner through advanced that they need to “raise their level of discomfort” at least occasionally at each practice. This way the bar is constantly being raised and they can’t help but improve. This creates both interest and motivation. Training on this threshold allows both the novice and elite swimmers to attain the next level of swimming and performance. Whether it is through instinct or experience I think that coaches who make the greatest impact on masters swimmers are those who are able to approach novice swimmers and share their enthusiasm for swimming. These coaches are vital to our sport and help promote a lifetime of fitness and friendships and personally, this is the greatest lesson I have learned through masters coaching. When I started at the age of 25 or so I had no idea what the concept of service was and through the years, as I mentioned earlier, I have become much more aware of is the “customer relations.” It used to be a situation where the group is serving me. I am going to make up the team goals and I want us to be at this meet or whatever it may be. Seeing it in that regard and probably we all, or at least I do, have some of that still in us, but as time has gone on I hopefully tried to reverse that a little bit. I am hopefully a better servant now than I was when I started twenty years ago.

Sense of Humor
A masters coach has a sense of humor. Jim Montgomery from Dallas Aquatic Masters says:

A coach has to be a motivator and an entertainer at the same time. 80% of our swimmers are there purely for fitness so the key on the deck is to have a good sense of humor, be really upbeat and for God’s sake, don’t take yourself too seriously.

This is a great bit of advice from Jim. Jim won the USMS Coach of the Year Award last year and I was honored to be on the selection committee. Jim sent a videotape for the selection committee to view. I would guess that about the first ten or fifteen minutes was he and Bobby Patton sitting at a table. I think there was another fellow there and they had a big bucket of beer in front of them and I said “that’s Jim.” That is Jim, sitting around with his buddies drinking beer and having a good time, not taking himself too seriously. I think that is very important. If you look into the minds and the lifestyles of the adults in our program, they are waking up, they are taking care of kids, and they are going to work. Life can be kind of challenging sometimes and I want to feel like when they come to swim practice, they are working hard but at the same time they are having fun.
Speaking of fun you are going to hear Sickie talk tomorrow. This guy is the master of fun. I showed up and went to a Sickie practice today. The first masters program I ever got into was when I actually lived here in San Diego in 1983. I had called around and whatever, way before the internet, and found out about Sickie’s program which was located next door to here, one way or another, Mission Hills or something and I showed up. Here was this guy with hair on a bike and he would deliver the set. He would ride his bike around the pool and have a good time so I came back. It is 20 years later and I show up at Sickie’s warm-up this morning, 5:30 and here he comes riding up on his bike. I am like, is this the same bike you had twenty years ago? I was so honored because he said, do you want to ride the bike? So I got on the bike, it’s a stingray I think. It’s got like 40 goggles on the handlebars and a license plate and the whole nine yards. I got to ride the bike around the pool and now my life is complete, it was fun. When you see your coach has a stingray bike on the deck, they are having a good time and Sickie will tell us a lot more about that tomorrow.
Our next quality of a successful masters coach is very sexy. This is Pamela Anderson from the Bay Watch Masters in Hollywood, California. She couldn’t make it today, but she says:

I want you to come and swim with me – lets get wet baby.

Well, that’s pretty cool. I didn’t put that in your handout now did I? So I thought that that would be pretty good following up on the sense of humor there.

A successful masters coach is a motivator. Once again Sickie from UCSD Masters Swimming says:

All swimmers need someone to motivate them. The coach needs to read the needs of each individual swimmer and find exactly what motivates them to continue to show up day after day after day after day. Think of going to your job without pay. Where is the motivation or am I talking about coaches here? A great coach can motivate almost anybody. Don’t follow any rules here, work from the heart.

There are a lot of different types of motivators. I grew up swimming in the same state where Dick Bower coached – a tremendous motivator. It is just a certain presence that he carried on the deck. He developed some tremendous young teenage swimmers and there are those also who are very quiet. I never had a chance to watch Doc Counsilman coach but I heard he was more that type. When I was growing up I remember watching Randy Reese coach at the University of Florida. I went and watched him coach one time and he too, very intense in a way on the inside, but his outward personality was very calm. So it is not necessarily the screaming cheerleader motivator pom-pom type of experience. I think there is more that goes into motivation than just our actions. I think a lot of it has to go back to passion in what we are doing inside and how we convey that to the swimmers.

Active Coach
This is from Sally Dillon and Sally is actually the secretary of US Masters Swimming. She has coached, but is not currently coaching. She lives up in Oak Harbor, Washington. Sally says:

I loathe the coach who puts the workout on the board and has a seat. When on the deck the coach is on their feet moving from lane to lane, interacting with the swimmers when they are on the wall, always attentive to what is going on. An active coach never sends their swimmers off on a set without a stated goal or focus. An active coach takes time to make encouraging comments when warranted and stroke corrections as well. They don’t reserve their comments to drills, sets or clinic days.

So once again, this is an attitude that we want to take as we are approaching the practice. It is not a situation where you are just going to be reserved and put a little energy here and go rest for ten minutes and then a little energy here. I try to see a practice as an ongoing experience almost like I was doing a distance swim. I put out energy over the course of 15 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever it may be. I am trying to be consistent, but there are a lot of periods where the swimmers are in the water, they are in the midst of a swim. There is nobody on the deck. There is nobody to talk to, but you can still be active in those moments by directing your attention and following the swimmers. Try studying a particular swimmer in their stroke, finding one that you want to give some feedback to while they are resting. After the set you can always take notes on the swimmers and talk with them after a practice about a couple of things you saw. You can get a couple of ideas that maybe you can implement at workout. You see that maybe they are not streamlining very well that particular day. You can implement that later so it is not just physically active, but it is mentally active and staying in touch with the workout the entire time. It is not easy, but just like in swimming, you put in the effort you are going to get the results back and the same with coaching. You put in the effort you are a better coach. The swimmers will gain more from it and you will grow more as a coach.

Personal Contact
A successful masters coach makes personal contact. This is from Mel Goldstein who has been a leader for many years in masters swimming and built the Indy Swim-fit Club. Mel is here actually as our sponsor liaison and you will find him usually at our vendor’s booth over in the exhibition hall. Mel says:

In each workout we try to acknowledge in some way every swimmer who is in attendance. We want them to have an enjoyable experience, as this may be the only time we see them for the week. This continued practice brings them back. Doc Counsilman once said ‘the most important thing to a person is his or her name and the most important topic is about themselves’. Following this very simple rule creates an atmosphere of enjoyment. The swimmer then knows you are aware they are there and not lost in practice.

Personally, I have been in situations before on the other end where I have been a swimmer and had a coach that really didn’t practice this very well. There would be many days where I would go into practice and we would get in the water and swim sometimes up to a two-hour workout. I would get out and I had never heard a word personally from the coach. I always felt like that was almost de-motivating to me. I need that input. I need that connection there and I would heartily suggest that you work this into your system of coaching. It may be a rule that you go by in each workout and personally talk with each swimmer at least once every workout. There are coaches I know of whom talk with each swimmer five times every workout. Now I am still just working on one. I don’t want anyone to leave a practice without having talked to me and it doesn’t have to be about swimming. It can just be a simple greeting when they come in or when they leave. I have a habit of trying to tell everyone hello, not necessarily hello, but just some type of interaction like looking eye to eye to them before they get in the pool. You may have to get to workout 15 minutes early in order to do that or you may have to stay ten minutes after the practice, but I think it is a great rule to follow.

Good Listener
Robert Zeitner is from Chicago and Flying Carp Swimming and Robert says:

I think one of the biggest faults of even very good coaches is not listening to your swimmers. This is especially true when the coach is introducing a new set of drills or a new wrinkle to a set or a workout. It is not enough for a coach to explain what drill or set or workout is going to be done if it is not understood. The purpose of the drill or set or workout is to improve the fitness, technique, and endurance of the swimmers and not to show how well educated and current the coach is. I find at times that I understand perfectly what I said because I understood what I had read or seen, but after having observed my swimmers it is clear that some of them have not. I now habitually ask my swimmers to explain the drill or set or workout back to me as they understand it to make sure we are all clear. I listen very closely when one of my swimmers explains to me whatever they feel is not right about the drill or set or workout, especially their physical impression. Coaching is very much a two-way communication.

I do think you have to be careful here. I think if we ask all the swimmers to tell us the set back after we explained it, that would take the whole workout. It is very good to do that in isolated cases and I find I am guilty of that too. I am kind of rushing. I want to get into the next set. I don’t want them to get cold. I don’t like to take more than a couple of minutes, maybe three minutes between sets. So I am very time conscious and I am explaining it pretty quickly to several lanes. You may have to explain it to this lane and then to that lane. Maybe the acoustics are not very good in your pool and when you try to explain it over six or eight lanes the outside lanes do not hear it. You have got to explain it to this side and then to the middle and then to this side, which is what I end up having to do. I like to do it that way better, but it takes some time to do and you get in this rush situation because you may want everyone to leave at the same time. You just breeze through it and more often than not there are going to be people who are not going to understand. So I know one thing that I have done lately is to get away from this idea that I used to have that everybody has to leave at the same time. I explain to this group and then I will look and see where the clock is and say you guys leave on the 30 and then I will go to this group and I will explain it to them. You guys are going to leave on the top and this gave me a little more flexibility. It gave me more time to deliver the set a little more slowly and answer their questions. Then when that set ends this group may finish a minute before this group and this group a minute before this group, but that works pretty well. Because then I can go back and start the next set and these guys are still swimming, but these guys are ready to listen to the next set. So, just a little tip there that might help you. It might give you more of an opportunity to get some feedback from them once you have explained the set.

Know the Swimmers
Doug Garcia is from Washington. This is kind of cool too because you get to learn about who some of our masters coaches are from around the country. Some of you may not know some of these guys. These are the Washington State Pullman and they actually designed the new masters swimming brochure here. Those of you in masters swimming by the way if you haven’t seen that brochure it is very nice and you can get as many copies as you want, call Traci Grilli at the national office. You can put team name, phone number, and/or website address on the back of that brochure and it is a great recruiting tool. Doug says:

Go to breakfast or coffee with a group of swimmers and learn about your swimmers non-swimming life. They look to you for swimming advice, but it is the non-swimming life that you need to learn from them. Where do they work? What is the name of their spouse? How old are the kids? The more you show a genuine interest in them, the more they will support your organization.

Capture this information in a database that you can tailor your messages to them and one idea that may come from this is that in your database you probably have their date of birth. So maybe you pop out a happy birthday card to them. I always wanted to do that, but I have never sat down to do it. I think Clay Evans and his team, send out birthday cards and I am sure some other teams do as well. As a masters coach it is interesting because you are their coach, but because we are all pretty much adults, give or take the same age category. We can be friends as well and I think there is a little bit of a balance there and a little bit of a role playing that goes on. For example, in my particular club when I am on the deck, obviously I am the coach, they are the swimmer, but then we may go to breakfast right after practice and that role shifts. I am not telling them what to eat for breakfast. And I am more one of them in a sense, in a very social sense. I am not trying to lead the conversation in any way. Just kind of fitting in there and it is interesting and a lot of fun to be able to play both of those roles. I think through time you learn to do that a little more effectively, to be their friend, but also to be their coach. When you are on deck sometimes you can’t really be their best buddy. My wife swims in my program and it is something I am still working on, although we have been married for ten years. It is still uncomfortable for me to address her coach to swimmer. I am getting better at it, but obviously as friends we don’t have any problem. When I am sitting here and I have to quiz her on her times because she was supposed to descend the set. It is just something I am not real comfortable with, so there are a lot of different roles we play here and so we try to balance between friend and coach.

Doug Church is actually our United States Masters Swimming treasurer at the moment and from the Noblesville Adult Swim Team and he says:

Convincing each swimmer that he or she should have a reach that exceeds his or her grasp. He says that long ago Doc Counsilman coined the phrase ‘hurt, pain and agony’ as an illustration of the phases of effort needed to push ones self to the maximum potential. For masters swimmers in particular, using words like those may keep them away from the pool so we have to be inventive and find ways to bring them along to the point that they are willing to make the extra effort to push harder to go farther.

Not every swimmer will respond to the same stimuli in the same way. For some it takes a reward, for others the fear of punishment, extra laps, humiliation. For instance, it is amazing how much extra effort I can get out of a middle aged man when I put him in a lane with a 30 something female who just happens to be a little faster. It also only takes a slap on the heel from the middle-aged man one time to keep the 30 something female right along. Beer works too. I think we all have our little motivational tricks and in general the greatest motivational trick I use is simply the pace clock. Once I can get swimmers attuned to the pace clock and attuned to their repeat times. For those of you who have not had a lot of experience with masters, you may think reading the clock is common sense, well the swimmers don’t. A lot of them don’t read the clock, so once you can kind of get them hooked into their times, then during the course of practice give them certain times to hit. For example, we are doing a descending set of eight 50s on a minute and they are starting at 50 and working down to 44. Give them times as they are finishing each 50. “You did a 48 on that one, lets see if you can do 47” or “you did 45 on that one, lets try to drop two seconds.” The last one is all out and it is almost like where you or I would normally create those types of goals in our own mind, if we were swimming. They are not at that point yet, so we have to sort of climb into their mind and develop those goals for them. Doug has a great point there about finding what it is that is going to motivate each person and it might not be times. It might be a situation where you have a couple of people lined up and you challenge them to race each other a little bit. I think its typically guys, I guess with their male egos, we put in that situation and it tends to work pretty well with them.

Handles Diversity
Frank “Skip” Thompson from South Oakland Seals in West Bloomfield, Michigan says:

Masters swimming is very different than age group, high school and college because you have a wider range of swimmers and fitness can become a bigger key in the equation of success than is competition. You have three main groups you have to bring focus to – fitness swimmers that want to be active and maintain an excellent level of fitness and have an enjoyable environment in which to do that. Competitive swimmers that want you to help them in workout for competitions, be it pool or open water. Triathletes which have been an increasing number in the last ten years to improve their swimming for the different race distances in the triathlon. A masters coach must come up with workouts that offer variety, that are stimulating, diverse and challenging all in the context of the differences in the goals of the three groups. A masters coach has to blend the talents, skills, abilities, backgrounds, motivation and goals in workouts to achieve group success.

The coach must be diplomatic and show tact and skill in dealing with the different groups and swimmers. He must communicate and organize effectively so that everyone understands what is going on and what is expected of him or her in the workouts. This can be particularly challenging if we are dealing with beginning swimmers. Because they do require a good bit of attention and we have workout situations where we have a group of swimmers that are at the higher levels. We deal with them in a particular way or mindset and then we have beginners who are usually not very confident in what they are asked to do and need a lot of reinforcement. We have to have a high degree of dexterity in the way that we think through the course of a workout. The motivations are very different say from one end of the pool to the other and handling diversity is a skill that you will develop as you spend more and more time with masters groups. I think it is a lot of fun when you have that type of variety and it is not just herding cattle all in the same direction. It is very satisfying once you feel that you have handled the needs of the different types of swimmers.

Traffic Cop
Brian Stack who is from Manatee Aquatic Masters in Oakland, California says:

You have given them the set, spelled it out, two maybe three times, you see confirmation from each person in the lane of comprehension. You go off to the next group awaiting your attention and after a while you come back to the previous group and what you see isn’t what you gave them. If you are lucky, one swimmer will volunteer that there is a problem and shed some light on its nature. More likely, you will notice the group adhesion gone and a mini civil war taking place right before your eyes. That is when the traffic cop shows up, blows the whistle and sets about to restore compatibility. Quickly analyzing the situation the traffic cop makes the call, restates the set, calms ruffled feathers, and/or rearranges the swim order and like the Lone Ranger is off on the next mission.

I am not sure the traffic cop is a unique quality. I think that many of the previously mentioned traits are combined in the traffic cop. You don’t ever want to be irritable, rude or insensitive. The goal remember is to restore harmony with logic and compassion. Not only do we need to know the swimmers, the swimmers really need to know each other. You know how it is when you hop in a lane to do a workout. You are immediately going through the assessment, he’s got shoulders out to here and he is not even breathing hard in warm-up, we are going to let him go first. I think everyone is kind of doing that. We are figuring out the pecking order. Sometimes our beginners don’t really understand that and so there is no pecking order. They try to sell each other on who is going to go last and then it sort of works up to the first from there. We really have to wear that traffic cop badge around the beginners. It is sort of thinking a little bit ahead of them. We know the sets, their set is going to start on the top and it might be five 100s on 2:30. We also know that when the top comes up none of them are going to leave and they are all just going to look at each other and finally out of desperation one of them will go. So thinking ahead of them, being the good cop, I need to set up their lane order before they start. When the clock is on the 40 and they are leaving on the top I may go by and say, “who is going first?” Nobody will say anything of course. So I say, “Cathy you are going to go first, Mark you are going to go second” and I will spell out the order for them. I also tell them to go five seconds apart because that is kind of a hard thing for them to understand. It is a little bit thinking ahead, just as a traffic would do, he might anticipate something at an intersection and goes in there and takes care of his business.

Jim Miller is our illustrious President of United States Masters Swimming, and is involved in the sports medicine aspect of the convention. He is giving some presentations there and Jim talks about being an entertainer. He says:

While I certainly believe in a well-founded base of knowledge, the presentation is critical. Adults come from stressful jobs and like events to be uplifted and entertained. If your athletes leave your practice understanding more about their strokes and having a great time you will never be able to get them to leave.

This all requires that you speak to everyone in practice and play at the top of your game. This comes from someone who is a very good technician of swimming. He has been a masters coach probably longer than anybody in here and he really understands the essence of what masters swimming is all about. He is very knowledgeable in the scientific end of the sport, but yet he is saying that a primary quality is that these guys need to have fun in practice, but we need to be able to create that. We need to be able to create an environment of entertainment, uplifting and fun. They need to walk out feeling good.

Wayne McCauley is from Hawthorne, which is not too far from here and coaches with El Segundo Masters. Wayne is actually the breaststroke guru, his website is breaststroke.info, so if you ever have breaststroke questions he is a good guy to ask. He says:

I personally think a good coach is also a good mentor to young coaches to spread the knowledge.

I love it when a coach I help emails me that his program is successful. They have said it is because of me, but no it is first because of their love of the sport that they were with me in the first place. I have seen coaches like Clay Evans develop dozens of great caches and I am sure Mike Collins and others have done the same. I think that those of us who have been in coaching a while probably need to be attuned to this a little bit. We are at a point where we can begin to pass on the knowledge to the next generation of coaches. You never know who can turn out to be a great masters coach as Jim said, it can be someone in your program and you may be mentoring when you are actually just giving a workout. They are observing you, they are learning the way you present yourself. I have a gentleman that is running my workouts while I am here for ten days. I told him that I want you to come to some of my workouts and not stay on the deck, but I want you in the water. That is so you can observe and get a good feel of how I run the workouts, but of course we also did some deck work as well so that he would understand how things go, at least through my eyes.

The last one is mine and I say:

One of the most important tools we use as a coach is our knowledge and experience. While constantly building a knowledge base the successful coach develops a variety of methods for conveying information to the swimmers. We communicate verbally and non-verbally. We communicate through intonation, intensity, body posture, our hands, our eyes, and our movements.

On deck make your message come alive. Remember that you know what you are going to say, but they are hearing it for the first time. Speak slowly and always repeat what you have said. Trust your instincts and I think communication, as I said, can take a lot of different forms. I send emails to the team every week, every Monday, they can expect an email from me and I feel like that is a big hook in my program because whether they come or not they are still in touch by this email they are going to get from me every week. Obviously, I talked earlier about the importance of the verbal discussions with the swimmers. I think just how you make eye contact with your swimmers is a way of communicating with them. So it is important just to be aware of our presence and our actions and our attitudes and so forth. We can get the message across to them in a very positive way.

Do we have any other qualities that any of you would like to offer? The following is a list provided by the audience.

How many sports, if you look at NBA basketball or minor league baseball, is the coach actually playing on the field with them? Like Jim said, it is wonderful to have swimmers come to you and say, thank you.

Thick Skin
So I guess some coaches would make good politicians too.

Michael, shed some light on that for us. I am sitting out on the pool deck yesterday talking with Kris Houchens in one of these lawn chairs and Mike walks up and has his under water video camera and his digital camera. He said, “we are at a clinic here.” Mike proceeded to do under water videotaping of the people. Mike is really the guru when it comes to technology and masters swimming and using it very well as a coach and he will be talking tomorrow and sort of bringing that into his talk on using technology to enhance your coaching.

Dick says:
I just want to say something to all of you. I agree with everything that has been said today, however, we all have different ways of doing things. The improvement, the level of masters coaches has gone up so much since we first started. If anybody as old as I am can remember – the first thing is the individual.

I think in answer to your question may be that you have to change. Dick is probably the best example in the country of the hard line age group coach when he was younger and he was tough, very tough, but he produced. Once he got into masters he mellowed and became very personable. Not always having to go the hard line approach or be in control. So I think it is responding to the environment and your environment perhaps has been more with age group where that sense of control fit that group a little bit better. It won’t work as well with adults because they are adults and I think in time you will naturally do this as you start to hang around. You will see that if your start locking the doors at 6 in the morning that they will get turned off by that. I am a big, big, believer in discipline and being on time and I try to live my life that way, but I am not going to demand that of my masters swimmers. One of them may be a doctor just coming out of surgery and wants to get in the last 30 minutes of practice and that is the only free time they have all day. So I have to understand that and relax a little bit.

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