Successful Summer League Coaching by Don Heidary, Orinda Aquatics (2014)


[introduction, by George Block]
You have seen and heard a lot from Don this week: he has been teaching and preaching all week here. And as usual, everything he has done has been fabulous. But if you do not know him, he is a coach who has done it all. He has done summer league, he has done high school, he has coached Olympic-level athletes; every year at the top of Junior Nationals. He is a coach’s coach and he is a preacher’s preacher, because he has done everything from a character first basis. And so his club stands for something, he stands for something, and his kids stand for something. I think you are going to see what, and it will be a little bit different, he stands for in the Summer to get kids involved in the sport. I know it is going to be beautiful. Thank you [Don] for taking the time to do this, and thanks for what you have done for our sport.

[Heidary begins]
Okay, thanks for coming. I have got to be honest with you: this is probably about ten times more people than I thought I would be here. This is the little bit different. I actually asked John Leonard to put this meeting on the agenda, and I think this could be an exciting thing. But before we start I just have a question: how many people coach Summer League Swimming? I assume everybody does. Okay. Raise your hand if you coach Summer League Swimming, and be honest, because you have to. The reality is it becomes an income anchor for a lot of people. So I assume that rest of you are coaching Summer League Swimming because you want to. That is great. But there is another reality.

So the first slide is: I am a swim coach, what’s your super power. I put this on here because I think coaches who coach Summer League are extraordinary people—you really have to be. So the talk is about successful Summer League coaching.

And I do want to preface this: if you are here as an Age Group coach or you are here because you are looking for drills or subtleties, that is not… it is not going to happen. I do not want to do that, and I think that there is so much information for you. I am more of a big-picture guy. I think that some of these things might help if you are running a Summer League club to either secure your job, to run maybe a better program, to create job security.

Just a brief background. My first Summer League coaching job, I was 16 [years-old]; my first head coaching job I was 19. So I was 19 years-old, coaching 200 kids; and it was trial by fire—I was petrified. And I am coaching Summer League for 20 years, and very quickly got intense about it and had a deep desire to win. So my brother and I coached every day from 7:00 in the morning to Noon, we taught lessons in the water from 1:00-5:00, then we coached again from 6:00-8:00; and we never took a day off. I do not recommend that, but we were we were pretty aggressive about the whole Summer League thing and about winning. I have coached high school for 30 years, so I have seen the teenage side of things, and most of those high school kids swam in the Summer League. My brother and I coached Orinda Aquatics for 20 years. The three drivers for us in Summer League coaching were: relationships, technique and culture. So even though we wanted to win, these were the main things.

Okay, this is a thing that I am exciting about—it is in the works thanks to John Leonard—to create Summer League certification for coaches. It is coming in 2015. I think it is the only coaching segment that does not get recognized with certification. I think it is a huge win for all of you, and for the organizations and the parents that you work for, and that you may work for. One thing that I would like to ask: if some of you are willing I would like to some input, in terms of this, if you are going to be certified by ASCA. The thing that we have to work through is the performance side. If you look at high school and Age Group swimming, and Senior swimming, they have certifications [performance standards]. I have some recommendations and we are going to use the national motivational times. But to try to find something comparable, so that you can get performance recognition.

Wait until you get into the real world. This was something that stuck with me when I was young. I was in one of those 16-hours-a-day modes. I was leaving the pool one day, and a dad was picking his son up. He was a very successful banker, and I still remember the image: he was wearing a white shirt, cufflinks, red tie. He got out of his BMW, met me in the parking lot, and he asked me how things were going. And I said “You know, things are going great, but this is… it is pretty tough, it is tough.” And he said, ”You just wait until you get into the real world.” I drove away thinking: wow, the real world has got to be pretty hard, because this is brutal.

And then I thought about more it, and over the years I thought: you know what, I just do not agree with him, I do not agree; I think this is the real world. So the notes here: negotiating with a 5-year-old to swim the fourth leg of a relay on a cold Wednesday night as the third swimmer is approaching the wall, giving a motivational speech to bring a team back from a deficit, dealing with a teenager that has decided to put themselves ahead of the team at the wrong time, creating a line-up to win a meet that could be decided by one point, or remaining calm as you deal with an upset or irrational parent. I do not think it gets any more real than that. I think that is a real life, and that is what you do.

So your superpower may very well be one of the most impactful things in thousands of kids’ lives. And people will say this: you are also a breeding-ground for an Olympian or career that hinged on you. It may be a high school career or collegiate career, but so many swimmers originate in Summer League. And I can tell you that you do not get the credit you deserve because it is not mentioned on resumes. When you look at the resumes of Olympians, they do not mention their Summer League team. A lot of elite coaches, they do not mention the Summer League team they started on, but so many started in the Summer League. And I can tell you: if they started swimming when they were 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 and it was a bad experience, they would probably have quit and nothing ever would have come out of it. So it is an extraordinary thing you do, and I think it is the superpower. In the world that we live in and all the things that people have to do, including the wealthy banker, I think you do a phenomenal job. In many ways, you are the backbone of the sport for swimmers and coaches.

These are a few kids that have gone through our program, and there are thousands like this. The gentlemen on the left, Chris Peterson, swam in a Summer League till he was 17 years-old; went to UC Santa Barbara and broke Jason Lezak’s 50 and 100 free records. Kim Vandenberg swam in the Summer League until she was 11, was second at the World Championships and on the 2008 Olympic team. Steven Stumph (on the right) swam in the Summer League until he was 12; he went to USC. He broke the national high school record in the 100 breaststroke and the Junior National record in the 200 breaststroke. And the most famous of all to come out of our community and our facility, Matt Biondi, never left the Summer League and broke seven World Records. That is the power of the Summer League. And had those kids had bad experiences, none of these accomplishments would have happened.

So could this even potentially be the best the job in the world? I would say it is a sports and a life-learning ground. And I have told coachers for years: what you learn here will transfer to anything you do—anything. If you are a doctor, if you are a judge, anything you do, these skills will carry on. So what do you do, and potentially on a daily basis, it is about: being creative, being challenged, communicating clearly, having a positive attitude, dealing with pressure, being energetic, being analytical, being organized, supervising, teaching, motivating, negotiating, managing staff, disciplining, planning, goal setting, building a culture, and creating and selling a vision. These are things that you do every day.

In terms of a wide range of experience, which I am sure you know as a Summer League coach: Amy Thurman was a 4-year-old that walked on the deck to learn how to swim; she ended-up being a multiple Olympic Trials swimmer and an All American at UCLA. Jason Mueller came out of foster care, where he was badly abused, and the Summer League team became his family and his refuge.

On the not-so-memorable side I will share a story with you. We had a 4-year-old kid who we decided to put fourth on a relay, and he had never swam a lap. He was very nervous, and he started crying and his goggles were filling up with tears. I said I’ll take this. So I was at the block with him at the end of the pool, and the third swimmer was swimming-in—like I described earlier. I am pleading with him and begging. He is shaking his head; he is crying. And I said “Marcus, you’ve just got to get down the pool. We just need the relay to finish.” I said, “You can hold on to the lane rope; I don’t care what you do.” And I am talking to him and emptying his goggles out, and I feel something on my foot. And I looked down, and he was… he went to the bathroom he was so scared. So that is the range of: national record to things like that. But those are things that we deal with, and I think that is why what you do is so valuable.

The unfortunate reality of Summer League coaching, and it may exist in other professions: forty emails a day from parents, parents accosting coaches in the deck, 15-18s leaving a meet halfway through because they really do not care, working 16 hours a day and worrying 20, top kids not showing up at championship meets, coaches getting fired with no notice, and parents dictating banquet awards. There is a dark side.

My history (that actually is me in the picture, and that is Amy Thurman when she was 6 or 7 years-old). But for me, it was eye-to-eye with kids in the water every day, is basically how I learned how to coach. It became really a life foundation. It was just learning about life, in the water looking in the eyes of little kids, every day; and trying to build athletes and people and teams. I would say I learned more in that period than in any other time of my life, in any other coaching experience; and the Summer League was the best coaching that I ever did and the best coaching experience that I have ever had.

Is it Swimming? Some people would argue this. The unique nature of Summer League: short season, training is muted. With kids swimming 25s and 50s, and a lot of older kids not training that much, how much is the training component? Social can be the dominant theme. Parents tend to control the process. Many swimmers are novice. Attrition and fallout can be high; on some Summer League teams you have a hundred 8&Unders and you cannot get a 15-18 relay. It is a results-driven process rather than a big-picture, long-term development. Compete with other activities. And you have an impact on careers with everything you do, so you have to know what you are dealing with. Some would actually argue: is it really coaching? Some think it is closer to babysitting, run like a camp; some think they teach, train, and team-build. But there is a wide range with the role of the coach.

Okay, I want to shift the little bit and talk about: what exists for you as a Summer League coach. Going back to: are we going to get drills or what are you going to do. This exists for you right now as a Summer League coach on the ASCA website in the store: motivational tools, all stroke analysis advanced, coaching 8&Unders, coaching the novice, Go Swim videos (for everything), Steve Haufler’s videos, games gimmicks, speed coaching, drill book, tapering, Age Group sports psychology, training young champions, working with parents, bulletin boards and newsletters, the swimming bible, tools for new coaches, writing workouts, coach organization, nutrition, dryland for Age Group swimmers, and countless articles. So there is a lot of information out there. And if that is not enough, you are one click away from 12 million website hits on swimming technique. There are 44 million hits for learn-to-swim. And if you are into having fun on your Summer League team, 472 million. So it is not a question of the information, and it is part of the basis for this talk.

So let us take a look in the mirror: who are you as a team? Summer League teams range from small, humble and social, to large, aggressive and competitive. This is the range: 75 to 375. Eight-week season versus quasi-year-around clubs. Demographics: rural versus many inflow systems where you have waiting lists to get in. Talent: novice versus nationally-competitive swimmers. Culture: social versus highly competitive. Staff: young college kids that just want a part time job versus matured professionals. Parents: from low-key to crazy. Pay: from low minimal to highly lucrative—there are Summer League positions/people who make $50,000 a year. Facilities: limited or expansive.

How do you measure success? Is it in team points—we scored more? Team place? We moved-up a spot? Retention—nobody left? Experience—they all had fun? Race quality—we swam well? How do you measure success as the Summer League coach? And do your swimmers know, does the staff know, and do your parents know?

Keys to success. If you had to rank 1-10 or pick the top-3, what would you say the key is for your team to be better are? Get bigger? Train harder? Better technique? Better coaching? Culture? Parents? Social? Serious? More organized? More lessons? If you had to pick three, what would you pick?

What is your endgame with kids? So going back to some of the success stories. Do you want them to stay in Summer League? Would you like them to swim high school? Club swimming? What if they could not do both? Do you want them to swim in college? And what role do you play in the swimming career of these kids? Does it happen by chance? Is it their choice? Or are you involved in the path that they take?

Summer League strengths: This is my assessment. It is the best introduction to the sport. Technical and skill focus. It is socially inviting. There is a great team feel. Race skills are developed. Lifelong relationships. Pools are conducive, and weather is conducive.

Drawbacks: it is race, short-term oriented versus distance-per-stroke, long-term efficiency. Too social; removes training and discipline focus. The system can hold kids too long, and it does not expose kids to mid-distance or distance-oriented events.

The note on here, Clay: there was a kid in our league that swam in the Summer League until he was 16. He left the Summer League because he was not fast—he did not win, he was not a star—and in two years he got a Junior National long course time in the 800m Free. Now, that is not why he went year-round and nobody knew; and he certainly was not recommended. So one question is: how many kids are there like that?

Challenges (all of these can be overcome): Short-term orientation. Staff continuity. Parent continuity—there is constant parent changing as you go through; coaches stay, parents rotate. Older swimmer retention is always an issue. Younger swimmer inflows. General discipline. Workout management, meet management. Vacation conflicts. And facility.

You are accountable to, and I do not if people ever think about this: 150-400 kids, 5-35 coaches, 200-500 parents. All are effected by what you do; you are in a pretty powerful position.

This talk is really about the cornerstones of the Summer League. I break it down into three things:
• The dry-side—which is kind of boring, but—it is organization for success.
• The wet-side, which is how you develop the kids and the team.
• And the culture, which I would say is the glue that holds everything together.

I want to give you two examples of culture, if you think it does not make a difference. The kid that left the meet halfway-through was 16 years-old; he was a boy on a team in our area. He did not care about the team, he did not care about the coaching staff, he did not care about anybody; he had zero ties to the program. He just walked out, and he did not tell anybody. I had a conversation with a different 16-year-old on another team, and I casually said, “Have you ever thought about leaving your Summer League team, swimming year-around?” And his eye started to well-up, and I did not know what happened. I looked at him, and I said, “Are you okay?” He dropped his head and he said, “I could never leave my Summer League team; it is my life.”

How could there be so far apart? What is it? They are on two teams that are very similar in the same community. The one kid would do anything for a Summer League team, the other one would do nothing. So, I think that is culture. I think it is what ties kids to the program, and I think it makes a huge difference.

So in looking at this on the organizational side: there is organizing the swimmers and the workouts, organizing the coaches and the staff, and organizing the parents. And you have to do this. Somebody from Club Development at USA Swimming said most coaches lose their job for non-Swimming or coaching reasons. Organization is critical; if your job is important to you, you need to make sure that you are highly organized. On the technique and training side, it is: progressions and drills—which we do not need to go over, but—I would say the implementation of those is critical, race prep, legality. And then on the culture side: it is team culture, training culture, and competing culture.

On the technique-and-training side, the only thing I want to add to that: while this may look generic, the focus of this talk is on winning. What I am going to talk a lot about is how you maximize points and how you win. And if your winning is moving-up spot, how do you do that.

These are few generic quotes: the welfare of each is bound-up in the welfare of all, and when spider webs unite, they can tie-up a lion. So if you have 200 kids on your team—or 250 or 150—and you can convince every one of them to try a little-bit harder and work on the stroke a little-bit more and streamline a little-bit better and cheer a little-bit more, it transforms your entire team. There is tremendous power in numbers. On a Summer League you can create a lot of momentum; it can also go in the reverse process.

The bottom line says: be process- and people-driven, not talent-driven. So a poor team would say oh, we’ve got a lot of hot kids coming up, I think we might win this year. A great team produces, produces, produces: you have a system and you are always developing kids.

So what is structural success? Creating a system, methodology, structure and organization that breeds and perpetuates accelerated development. What that really means is you have a system in-place that maximizes every person on your team—everybody. The components are: workout, team structure, the kids, the staff, meet management, and again parents support.

On a workout management, what I would say is every workout is organized. Every kid is in the right lane for the right reason, that you know. That you look at your roster, that you plan your workouts, whether by age or ability. That you have your A group, B group, C group; but every group and sub group is organized. You have kids in the right lanes for the right reasons.

Managing large groups with discipline. You lose a lot of productivity by having to discipline. If you have a culture of discipline and you do not have to do that, you stay highly productive. Kids are in on time, they always listen, they leave on time, they do not talk when you are talking; you are always efficient and productive. As you know with Summer League teams, if they are not disciplined, you can spend a third of the time on the wall, stop talking, come on, come on. The objective is to not have to do any of that.

Maximize the facility. If you have a small pool, utilize it. The diving tank, if you have it, widths working on race dives and streamlines, the length, working on technique or endurance. Have a group on the deck that you are taking through the motions of a drill or technique.

Equipment—which we use a lot of. Fins, for younger kids: help them maintain speed because their bodies are a little bit smaller. Snorkels remove the breath and allow the head to stabilize. Tempo trainers can either speed-up their stroke for backstroke or slow it down.

Demand everything. Going back to workout management, this is something that we did a long ago. I just want to share this with you because it has worked, when you think about pushing the limits. So, we had a Summer League team, and we had about 40-50 6&Unders. And the 6&Under workout started at eleven o’clock every day. When we started coaching, the typical process was: parents would drop their kids off, the kids would run and play on the grass or the play structure, and we would go kind of herd them up and bring them over and line them up. And we started doing that, and I said, “Why do we have to do that, why can’t they do that?” And somebody said they’re 6 years-old. I said, “Let’s just try this.”

So we got them together, in front of the pool, underneath the clock, and I said, “How many of you can tell time?” And a few raised their hand and a lot did not. And I said, “How many of you can see the clock?” And they all raised their hand. And I said “Okay, this is the deal: when one hand is straight up and the other hand is pointing right here to that eleven, you need to be lined up.” And we told them, “We’re going to give you a lane and we’re going to give you a number. You need to be in your lane and be in you order, right there.” And I said, “If you’re not, we’re not going to come for you, so you’re not going to workout.” And the other thing I said, because we were pushing the limits, I said, “And you have to be quite.” No talking, lined up, at eleven o’clock in your order.

These are 4, 5 and 6 year-olds. It took about two weeks, and they did it. So what we had was every group was lined-up, 6&Unders… and we knew that the 7+8s could do it, because we told them 6&Unders were doing it, and so on. So every group was lined up, in their lanes, waiting quietly. And so we finished the workout, and we just turned and started the next group. If you want to be efficient, and you want to maximize you need to things like this.

(The bottom line:) Glue or watch was when they were in the water, they had to put “glue” on their hand, and glue their hand to wall and watch the coach. If they did not do that, that they would watch from the deck—that we would sit them up on the deck. They had to glue their hand to the wall. It was organizational thing, it was a discipline thing; but it was also a safety thing. So with large groups, we always knew their head stayed above the water and they were holding onto the wall.

Staff management. This is my opinion; this also goes back to efficiency in running a program, and maximizing what you have. Hire from within, all things being equal. Hire great people, hire role models, hire character and integrity, hire leaders not swimmers. Have staff progression plans: how you move up. Have a succession plan, a backup plan. Delegate. Have regular staff meetings. Have workout meetings with staff before practice. The head coach should spent time with every coach, to check-in, to monitor, to help them develop, hold peer reviews, and address conflicts quickly and privately.

There is a club in our area that had a coaching issue: one staff became two from the beginning. and they went the whole season like that. Kids did not know who to talk to. Stuff can happen very quickly.

Staff guidelines. Know the team values, mission and objectives. Speak the same language, same philosophy. Respect the head coach, even if you do not agree; when you are a head coach, people should respect you. Be prepared, organized, enthusiastic. Be a professional—age is not an issue. Be a role model—age is not an issue.

We had coaches from 12-years on up, and they understood that they had to be a role model and they had to be a professional. So it was in all aspects: attire, language. We told them repeatedly: coaching is a privilege, you are affecting young kids lives, you need to understand that.

And the last thing on here: know the child protection guidelines. I hate to bring-up a somber subject, but in Summer League swimming and in rec swimming, it is a reality and it is dangerous. You have 13-, 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year-old girls, and you have got 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year coaches, and they hang out. The reality is two coaches in our area are in prison; so it is not just kind of a rule or policy, it is a stark reality. So I would just say, if we are doing a Summer League talk and we are talking about staff, have a very serious meeting with your staff. Do not cross the line, do not sit on anybody’s lap, do not let anybody sit on your lap; do not do what you should not do.

Okay, built-in staff. Going back to the staff thing, if staffing is an issue for you, this is an easy way to do it. So you have your team; and no matter what the number is, it is probably a lot of kids. With your team, if you institute accountability and discipline and policies that you want your kids to live by and be athletes by; as they grow in the sport, you talk about being a role model and a leader. And we did that: the kids on our team are going to grow-up to be leaders; and you have to be on time, and you have to be respectful, and you have to care about teammates. Basically, from this model, you have staff, because the best role models from your team should move into your staff. So if you have 30 or 40 kids, and five of them say I really want to coach, that is what you do. And so, on our staff, in 14 years we have had virtually no turn-over, and we had a great staff. Because they grew up in the program, they knew the culture, they loved the team, and they wanted to coach; so it was a no-brainer. We did not have to go outside.

Okay, this is just a diagram on effective coaching. This was the model that we used. So in a 6-lane pool, we would just have typically three groups. So you have group A with coach A. And, again, in terms of efficiency, the top coach coaches the top kids, and it says high level, generally technical. So, with those kids, it is fine-tuning stroke technique and they are coached aggressively. And if you did not want to be coached aggressively, you did not have to be in that group. The B coach, at the other end of the pool, coaches the second level group. It is more a developmental group, and he is trying to move those kids up. And the C group is coaching novice/fundamental kids.

So the model we used is: the top coaches coach the top kids, because you could get the most out of them; the next level coach worked with the middle group, and they would try to move those kids up; and somebody that was great with fundamentals worked with the C group. But the goal is: we are trying to maximize the efficiency of the staff and the team. Parents would say well how come you do not work with the other kids? Because we have eight coaches that can do just as good a job. So, we use that model. And every day you had a mission, and the mission was: the C coach, you are trying to get kids into the B group, and the B group, you are trying to get them in the A group. And so that is what we did.

Okay, somebody said to me a long time ago… actually, I said this, and the response came later. When I was frustrated because kids were not doing what I was doing, I was young and I said, “The kids just don’t get it; it is not working.” And the response came back, pretty aggressively: It’s not what you know, and it’s not what you say, and it’s not even what they hear; it’s whether they get it or not. It’s affecting change quickly, and it’s your responsibility. It was like a light went off, and I realized: if you want to be a good coach, it does not matter what is on the other side, it is your job to change it or to find a way. So I never said again they don’t listen or they don’t care; as a coach I had to find a way. So that became a theme.

On meet entries—and I know this is boring admin, but—triple-check for accuracy, and cross-check for issues and relay situation. So, what we did was we went over entries three times, because if you did not enter one kid in an event and it became a team issue…. So we did not want to deal with it, so we cross-checked and we looked for any issues. Then for relays, we made sure that the right kids were on the right relays. If there was some problem, we dealt with the kids in advance. What you do not want to do is post your entries, or send them out, and have twenty emails, and so-and-so is upset, and the kid is crying and they are not on the relay. We went to over this stuff, several times.

Meet management, this is what we would do for each meet. A coaches’ meeting before the meet, and go over staff responsibilities. Talk about team arrival and being on-time. Everybody had to be in team attire, even on a Summer League. In the team area, we would have a team meeting, every meet at the same time. We had 8&Under shepherds; 10&Unders had to get themselves to the blocks. We had a warm-up that we wanted to do a good job on and do together. Pre-race conversation with every kid; post-race conversation with every kid. And swimmer performance management.

At the Rec or Summer League level, it is highly emotional. Sometimes the parents are more emotional than the kids. So as coaches, if you have a great swim, it is not that big of a deal; and if you do not have a good swim, it is not that big of a deal. But managing the response to swims was important, and it could be volatile. And we had a coaches’ meeting after the meet.

Okay, parent management. This is not exciting, and lot of coaches do not want to deal with it. But it could be the linchpin to your job, and it is critical. I think that good coaches know how to manage parents, and navigate that landscape. I was talking to Steve, and there was a guy that took a job in a Summer League one year; the day of the season ending, he was informed he was not coming back. He had no idea; they never communicated with him. He did not know, and it just should not be like that. Can you imagine, working in a company and you have no clue, and oh, by the way, don’t come back tomorrow.

Communicate early and often to parents. Have talking points. You should have a staff meeting and say these were the things when you’re talking to parents that are important to convey. You do not want young coaches just… you need to have things that are conveying the commitment of the coaching staff, the experience, what we are trying to do, stroke background, season goals.

Attend board meetings and committee meetings. You may not contribute, but you can hear the tone of the room, and you know what the parents are thinking. Connect at meets and workouts; know political and power players. A lot of coaches do not want to deal with this, but you have to engage. Sell the parents and the staff. And have a working parent liaison. There should be some parent on the committee that is liaison, that you are constantly in-touch with. How is everything is going? What are you hearing? Is there somebody I need to talk to? And do damage control early.

On the note on talking to parents at workouts and meets, and I did this a lot: if I was coaching a workout and a parent walked in, I would leave the workout—have another coach do it—and just walk over and introduce myself, and talk to the parent. Because that is one person that I just brought into the process, and it made a big difference. We did that for years, and we really did not have any parent problems.

Safety. Movement on the deck is important. Three-point entry. One hand on the wall—like I said earlier. When we work with the little kids, we would have a scout on the deck, if there was no guard. So for 6&U and 8&U workouts, we would have anybody 11-12 years-old, sit on the deck, and they would just scan back-and-forth from the deck, just to make sure the kids were safe. Do not turn your back on 6&Unders or novice swimmers. If you are in the water, moving away, always face the kids. And have a junior coach or staff in the water.

Breath control. I know it is a sensitive topic now. Somewhat related to Summer League Swimming because a lot of the swimming is without a breath. We actually had a kid trying to… a 7-year-old boy, trying to go two laps, and he just went limp on the second lap, in the middle of the pool. I was not there, in the evening that day. They jumped-in and grabbed him, and he ended-up being okay. But it should never happen; it should just never happen.

And diving is obviously a sensitive issue. I have a note on here talk to older kids because younger kids follow older kids. And if they are jumping off the roof into the diving well or whatever, they need to act like role models for the safety of the younger kids.

The wet side. Yes, wet: we were in the water every day with 6&Unders. Going back to maximizing points, if that is your objective, that is the fastest way to do it. So we were in the water, every day, all the coaches, with the 6&Us. 7+8s, we were in the water most of the time; 9+10s, some of the time; and lessons, all of the time. Going back to that accelerated development thing: it is the fastest way to effect change with little ones.

Winning is fundamental. 90% of young swimmers are not fundamentally sound. So, if you go to any Summer League meet—conference, county, anything—and you just watch kids, 90% of them are not fundamentally sound. Head position, distance per stroke, streamlining: they are not. They may be thinking about things, but they are not fundamentally sound. So our philosophy was dominate the fundamentals, and you are guaranteed to out-perform. Even if you pick two or three drills. But if your goal was to be better, better, better, or the very best at what you did; it would be leaps and bounds—you cannot not do well.

So our theme was dominate the fundamentals: the little things, do better than anyone. We went over them over and over and over again. I see a lot of young Summer League coaches, they watch, they read, they watch elite swimmers, and they want to try new things. Their kids are not fundamentally sound, and their team is not, because they are focused-on a couple of fast kids. So, I think if you want to be successful at Summer League, you just pound-out the fundamentals, over and over and over again. You will be doing your kids a service for the long term as well.

Teach and train for success. Progression plans, standard; but I think the key is efficient implementation of progression plans. Train staff at each position. They know what they are doing, they know what their objectives are, they know what their kids should know, and they know when to move them on. Repetition in training because it is just training technique, rather than just training to train. And race rehearsal.

These are just a few examples that we would have coaches in the water. This would be like 6&U kid that just came out of the stairs. These are little things that we would do, and I did this stuff for years, in the water in a wetsuit. So backstroker; back float, arms at your side, holding the head, and you are just working through check points. Chin up, tap the chin; tummy-up, tap under the back; locked elbow, tap the elbow; pinky up. So, you get them in a good body position, and then we would tap right ear. Lift stiff, look for your pinky drop. We would just do this, with 4-, 5-, 6-year-olds. And then we would go full stroke. And then we would break the stroke down into four points: one, two, press, push, three and four. But every time, we were grabbing/squeezing pressure points, but we would go through. Butterfly, we would do the same thing. Everything was controlled; slow-motioned control, basically, to try to be fundamentally sound. And the kids learned how to swim pretty efficiently.

Stroke development recap: slow to fast, fast to race, fundamental to technical, aggressive drills, condition drills, condition stroke, stroke rate versus distance per stroke, and perfect the race. Ten years later, we still say the same things—set head, pinky in, the same things. The fundamentals stay; if they learn them when they are young, they stay—you do not have to rebuild a stroke.

These are just the few more specific things on training technique. The picture here is from Sleepy Hollow—Matt Aaron Berger was on Orinda Aquatics staff. This is a banner at their pool’, it is on their t-shirts, they have it everywhere. It is: every dive, every turn, every finish. So when we talked about culture—and we will talk about it little bit later—this is a culture of training disciplines, and it is right there in your face. And the kids know it—the 5-year-olds know it.

As far as specifics go, 50s or 25s easy, with accurate breathing pattern. Anybody that is swimming a race that requires a breathing pattern, they should know exactly where they breathe. So if you have a 6-year-old girl that should breath one time in a 25 Free, she should know when she takes her breath. So we would do 25s easy, and tell her exactly where you breathe, and make sure she knew. So you just condition that. And then we would do those little bit faster, and then we would do practice races If you are a 10-year-old, 50 butterflier, and you take one breath down and two breaths back, we would want you to know exactly where you take the breath.

I am sure you have all been at a championship meet, and somebody dives in in the Finals and the kids is just breathing. You ask them how many breaths he took, and he said I don’t know. But you can train that. And if you are in a championship meet, and races are close and points are close, you will have a competitive advantage.

Race dives in a pool. Change the hold time. We would do race dives in the diving well, where they only took one stroke: you would be underwater, one breakout stroke. We would match them up and race. We would set them behind a little bit, try to catch-up on the underwater. We would change the hold time—quick start, long hold—just to make sure that they would not false start. And this is with 6&Unders.

Race finishes. In the water, holding kids, six lanes. You pair up, and they are racing. You explain race technique, how you win a close race: you never breath, extend to the finish, keep your head still, do not look up, no breath free and fly—whatever your rules are for race finishes. We would just through that, over and over and over again. So not only did they learn how to do it, but they have the mental race-trigger that when they were coming into the flags, they knew: win the close race.

Pull downs. We would do time turns.

This next thing, 16×25 catch-up freestyle, it is the most basic set you could possibly think of. But if you had a group of 9+10s or 11-year-olds, and you told them: we’re going to go 16×25 catch up, you have to be underwater through the flags, tight streamline, no lazy streamline, you get three breaths and your whitewater can’t drop, you get 13 strokes and you can’t take one more, and we’re racing. And you do that. And if they do not do it right, it does not count; and you end up doing 20 and they are exhausted. The stroke is controlled, and when those kids swim a 50 Freestyle, they hold their stroke.

We would do a lot of stuff like that to train technique. You can adjust the interval, anything you want to do. It is not complicated, but if you want to maximize the kids abilities and your teams points, it makes the difference. Rather than just letting kids go, you are controlling what they are doing.

Keys to 25s—because all your 6&Us and 7+8s are racing 25. The note here is competitive advantage. You all know what to do; these are things where I would say if you want a competitive advantage, critical. The start: how many 6&Us and 7+8s are great off the start? It is not an easy thing to do. Getting the motion off, the entry clean, holding a streamline, carrying speed, timing of breakout. If you work on starts over and over again, you gain a competitive advantage. Breathing pattern—which we talked about—only breathe where you should breathe. Finishing technique, which we just mentioned. And knowing three things on your stroke, for whatever it is—set head, right-hand wider on entry, strong legs. Kids should know those things.

50s and competitive advantage. Dive, break-out; breathing pattern for the 50, free and fly. Win the turn. A lot of 9- and10-year-olds are weak around the walls; they fatigue, they turn slow, they are not strong underwater. Race turns, perfect technique, time turns, win the underwater. The other thing is the finish, because some of those kids fatigue. But if you condition the finish—when you get to the flags, explode and go. If it is backstroke get the flags wet. Whatever you do—work stroke counts in backstroke—it makes the difference.

Lessons is a big part of Summer League coaching, outside of the monitory component. The competitive component: club-run/coach-run, private group, how are they structured, are they tied to workout, what is the sign up process, are they required or optional, and are you in the water. We see all of these. But I think if you want to maximize the monitory part, it would be better if you ran them.

But to maximize lessons, this would be the cycle that I would suggest. You run workouts, and you watch kids. You teach those kids in the water. Because you coach them every day, you know exactly what they do; so you are in the water working and refining. Then you are on the deck the next day, you are talking about what you worked on in the lesson—where their hand was in the water, remember their head move. And then it should translate into the race. So, the combination of reinforcement from workout to lessons to workout to racing is the quickest way to develop.

I think there are lot of different models with lessons. But I think when kids are hearing a lot of different things, some people say well it is good to get different viewpoints. If you really want to be efficient, I think it is better to move kids forward.

The last thing is cultural success, which is kind of a nebulous topic. Like I said with the two guys and in rec swimming and here it is in car decorating, the great clubs do this: they create a culture that binds kids. That kids never want to leave; they will do anything for the team. Defining a purpose, team identity, cultural themes, activities, connect with kids/parents.

Leadership is all about painting the vision and giving people something worthwhile to follow. It is one of my favorite quotes. I think, as a coach, it is incumbent upon you to create a vision, give people something worthwhile to follow, and sell it. And the first great gift we can bestow upon others is a good example.

The social component of rec swimming. It can take-over a club, and it can destroy a club. The positives are: it builds culture, bonds team, and it ties to the mission. The negatives: it can erode discipline, and it can breed entitlement. So you have the middle-aged kids that go well this isn’t fun or if it was fun, I’d go to practice or how come we’re not having relays today; they have totally lost the connection to team and training and working out. So I think it is important to have a social plan: when you do things, why you do things.

Culturally, how much? I think an overlap is great, but to have social dominate competition is not healthy. Socially acceptable. These are some of the things that we did: skit night, date night, milkshake points, hard dog day, buddy night, sign painting, spirit week, movie night, obstacle course. This is the few of the things that we did, but it was in the context of team building.

Okay, a culture of success and training. Like for every dive, every turn, every finish, can you create a culture of success in training? Attendance, dedication, being on time should be cultural: we are on time.

I will give you one anecdote. My brother coached a team about 25 years ago, and they could have been the best Summer League team in the United States. They worked out at 6:00 a.m.; it was the only time that my brother could coach. So you had kids from 10-18 years-old and they would run down the path to get to workout so they would not be late. They would not be late for practice. They would rather not come and stay up, than be five minutes late. The culture was discipline and be on time. 6:00 a.m., 50 kids making sure they were… in the summer, high school kids. It was cultural; it was not accidental.

A culture of: hard work, being positive in the workout, being supportive, hi-fives on sets. That is a cultural thing; it is not just a nice-person thing. Training legally is cultural; it should be embedded in your team. Everything is legal, like there is a judge watching everything you do. And working the walls: better turns than anybody.

A culture of success without winning. So if your team is not a great team, you are not winning the conference meet, can you win the team cheer, win the warm-up, win the walls, win the close races, win appearance. Team cheering, sportsmanship, even clean-up, can be cultural. Every aspect of the meet can be culturally-driven, and you can be extraordinary. I would just say demand this; there is no reason why. The more you do this, the better your team will do.

Retention—this ties back to coaching. I think everybody knows that older kids tend to drift. But like the kid that got teary-eyed, you can keep them. And when your kids are young, like being on time with the clock and developing a training culture and leaders 10-14-years-old, they will stay. It is possible to keep everyone on a Summer League team, through 18-years-old. And you can create a culture where their dream is when they graduate and they give their farewell speech, what are they going to say; not when am I out of here.

Just a few things on subtleties. If the point thing is what you are at looking for—and it was what we were looking for—competitive advantage. If you are coaching a Summer League team, 6&Unders are the best point maximization. A lot of coaches want to coach the older kids because they relate better and they can train a little bit more, but the biggest impact on points is 6&Unders. You can take a novice kid, or somebody who just came out to learn-to-swim, and by the end of the summer, they could be county champion if they are talented. And if you are a high-level coach, you can do that. But the model gets turned upside-down too often, where the younger, weaker coaches coach the kids who can really maximize your point production.

9+10 turns I talked about earlier: if you attack 9+10 turns, you are probably going to beat everyone else in the 9+10s. Vacation management. It sounds silly, but rather than coach an entire summer and then find out twenty families are going to be gone; at the beginning of the year, talk to the parents, talk to the kids, key meets, we need you here, this is important to the team, please make a commitment to be here. You dramatically cut down on people that are leaving, and you score more points.

15-18 retention we just went over.

And the last one: no DQs. I think if you go into a championship meet, the goal should be zero DQs—zero. We saw in our last championship meet, one team had two relay DQs at the end of the meet in the free relays; it was about a hundred points—you do not have to do that.

So an example on relay-DQs, we would have kids do track starts: rock back six inches, look straight down at the wall, not the kid; when you see the hand touch, you go. People looked at us and said, “Oh, that’s stupid; they’re doing track starts. How come they’re not winding up?” Because we have 5- and 6-year-olds, 7- and 8-year-olds, goofy 9- and 10-year-olds; and we are not going to put a championship meet on the line, we are going to guarantee 100% safety. So what we would tell the kids is the two tenths you make up in the race, but we’re not going to give it up on the start, and I don’t worry about anything happening. So, we just found a way, and we did not have the DQs—so there is a way to do it. But if you are trying out maximize points, that is an option.

I will conclude with: improve today three things. The three best things you do, what would you say they are as a Summer League team? Three areas that you must improve? Three ways to improve your staff? Three ways to improve parent relations? Three ways to improve your culture? And three ways to improve your technical development? If you can think of three things, and you make a commitment to do them next summer, your team will be better.

And so, I am done. I am sorry that was a little bit dry; it is not that sexy, not doing drill videos, and things. But I think there is sometimes a bigger picture that is missing, and it is the structure around the technique that I think is critical. So, thanks for sitting in. If anybody is open to talking about Summer League certification, if you want to stay, maybe we can talk a little about it. So thank you very much for sitting in.

##### asca #####

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Sponsorship & Partnerships

Official Sponsors and Partners of the American Swimming Coaches Association

Join Our Mailing List

Subscribe and get the latest Swimming Coach news