Teaching Leadership Skills to Swimmers by George Block (2000)


George Block is the Administrative Head Coach of the Alamo Area Aquatics Association. Coach Block is the Treasurer of his LSC and a member of the USA Swimming Senior Swimming Committee. He is a columnist for both SWIM NEWS and SWIM TEXAS magazines. George is vice-chairman of the San Antonio Sports Foundation and a former ASCA president.




I need to begin with a disclaimer.  A few years ago, at the conclusion of the keynote address during the ASCA Awards Banquet, Coach Tim Welsh (Head Men’s Coach at the University of Notre Dame) challenged all of us in attendance.  He challenged us to learn as much as we could about leadership, then come back to the World Clinic one year later and teach each other what we had learned.  Our staff took that challenge seriously.


My disclaimer: It took much more than a year.  We had to learn the hard way.  We were just one (1) group.  n=1.  I don’t think that could make its way into any scientific publication, but we were a diverse group.


The “we” is a group of coaches in a unique situation, just like all of your situations are unique.  “We” are a group of high school and club coaches who all work together in the same pool with the same kids.  There were seven high school coaches and five club coaches involved.  It was a real collaboration.  All of the coaches were committed to the project and everyone took a “slice” and worked it hard.


We had collectively observed that the quality of student-leadership on both our high school and club teams had declined precipitously since about 1984 (even while the quality of swimmers had improved).  This internal observation, and the resulting problems in training groups and teams, was our motivation.  It was not an abstract thing.


We approached it “scientifically”.  Bill Thomas (now coaching in Oregon) did the survey of literature.  He read nearly everything that was being done both in the business and academic worlds.  Many of you may have read a number of articles in American Swimming that Bill’s research inspired.


Bill observed that what was being studied and done in the business world was substantially different than what was being studied and done in the academic world.  We first postulated that this would be accounted for by different learning, leadership and maturational issues between adolescent and adult leaders.  I’m not sure that any of us would hold that view today, but that was our assumption at the time.


We decided to “steal” the best ideas from both the business and academic models.  In doing so, we developed a five (5) step, yearly process of leadership development.


Initial Model

Our 5-steps were:

  • A Future Leaders Course
  • A Team Leaders Retreat
  • A Motivational Speaker
  • A Team Day
  • A Community Service Project


The Process

The process actually began at the end of the school year with a Team Leaders’ Retreat.  We basically stole this from the NCAA.  What was different than the NCAA’s model was that this included both formal (team captains, best swimmer, etc.) and informal (swimmer with most charisma who everyone follows regardless of title or swimmer who throws the most team parties and therefore has status) leaders.  It also included all of the high school and club coaches in the facility who coached any of these swimmers.


We used the NCAA’s model of focusing on real problems.  The coaching group selected the most difficult problems that the programs were facing, problems that offered no clear solution to coaches, Booster Clubs or administrators.  The Assistant Director of Athletics facilitated this meeting based on two (2), critical understandings.


First, the coaches and team leaders had to leave with specific plans, timelines and responsibilities.  Second, there had to be complete support of the outcome(s) by all participants.  Anything less than complete support constituted non-agreement and the group went back to work.


The “realness” and difficulty of the problems made it more than just group process.  Understanding that the solutions would be enacted gave the athletes tremendous power and drew tremendous energy and teaching out of the coaches.  In addition to the problem solving activity, all of the leadership activities for the coming year were planned at this meeting.


After the first year, the school year began with a motivational speaker and daylong activities including that speaker.  The goal was two-fold.  First, to reinforce the goals and values of the Student Leadership Project.  Second, to make real our often-stated purpose of teaching life skills that will endure well past their swimming careers.


We solicited business and professional people who demonstrated the goal-setting, time management, leadership skills, etc. that we emphasize in swimming.  This was a major part of our daylong series of talks and activities.


Coming very quickly on the heels of our Motivational Speaker was Team Day, perhaps the most fun aspect of the project.  Team Day was the work of three coaches: Steve Gordon, Jack Alexander and Kurt Swanson.  Coach Gordon had considerable background working in Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as teaching a “ropes course” on a Special Education campus.  Coach Alexander is an elementary physical education teacher with considerable experience in cooperative games and Coach Swanson took the cooperative games developed by Coaches Gordon and Alexander and created a scoring system for them.


The scoring system was critical, because it was based not on athletic skill or team size, but on the ability of a team to work together.  The team with the best teamwork won.  We had seven (7) objectives for Team Day:


  1. to foster team building;
  2. to teach teamwork;
  3. to force new “cooperations”;
  4. to force “long-term” teamwork;
  5. to create “new” (non-swimming) winners;
  6. to be “size-neutral” to allow full team participation; and
  7. to create opportunities for student leadership and responsibility.

While seeking these objectives, we never forgot that we had swimmers working on land, so there was a continuous emphasis on injury avoidance.


Both the Motivational Speaker and Team Day took place during the traditional pre-season

in August and September.  Once the real training season began, we taught our Future Leaders Course.


The Future Leaders Course was for all club and high school 9th graders and “new” swimmers to our programs.  It was intended to give everyone a core set of team values, concepts and skills that would be needed as they assumed team leadership roles.


Coach Todd Erickson, a retired Air Force officer, developed the curriculum.  In addition to his extensive coaching background, Todd had spent a significant part of his Air Force career commanding training units, dealing with basically the same age group and issues.


The “course” was taught once a week, in lieu of water practice (that is how committed we were), covering:

  • “Our” Team Values
  • Teamsmanship
  • Peer Pressure and Peer Support
  • Standards and Expectations
  • Taking Initiative
  • Group Dynamics
  • Situational Leadership


The final stage of the Student Leadership Project was the Community Service Project.  Each high school team, as a part of the Team Leader’s Retreat selected, planned and executed a Community Service Project.


Prior to the Team Leader’s Retreat, the high school coaches developed a menu of potential community service projects in their attendance area.  During the retreat, the team leaders selected a project.  From that point on, it was the role of the coach to monitor and support the team leaders in the completion of the project.


One of the objectives of the Community Service Project was to both raise and improve the image of the team in the community.  In order to do that, the projects had to be selected with enough lead-time to allow for adequate press and public relations.  The project is also intended to have a demonstrable effect on each swimmer’s feelings of self-worth.  We wanted them to learn that sacrificing time, as a group, to a larger purpose was fun and made them feel better.


With all of the recent emphasis that universities are putting on community service projects, we wanted each year’s project to be significant enough to be “resume worthy”, so that after four years, each swimmer would leave with a portfolio of community service projects. The most important objective, however, was to help them learn that real leadership benefits “someone else”.



After three (3) years, we looked at the markers that we had identified as indicators of student leadership, things like attendance, out of water “incidents”, acceptance of specific challenges, etc.  There were no identifiable, measurable behavioral changes.  Three years of deliberate, detailed work on student leadership, using the best practices from business and education produced no improvement in the quality or quantity of student leaders.


Back to the Drawing Board

We looked at the juniors and seniors who we had expected to become our student leaders (but weren’t) and were shocked by the results.  In every instance, at least one (1) significant “component” was missing.  This missing “something” stole their credibility with their peers (and coaches) and prevented them from being accepted as leaders even if they were top swimmers, very charismatic, threw the best parties, knew exactly the right thing to say, etc.  Without credibility, natural leaders could not lead.


The problem then became the process of building credibility.  This process of working backwards from our current crop of frustrated leaders to the process of credibility became a major “ah ha” experience for our group of coaches.


Military Model

Our particular group of coaches had an unusually high percentage of coaches with military backgrounds.  In spite of that, we all discounted the use of a military model because we didn’t think that we had the same “stick” that the military has, or because we didn’t want to appear “militaristic”, or perhaps because we were just stupid.  The militaries of the world have been dealing with these same problems, with the same age group since the time of the Greeks and Romans.


Serendipitously, at the same time we were confronting our failed project, I was reading Making the Corps by Thomas Ricks.  Ricks’ book reminded me (and all of us) about basic training.  We reviewed the basic training models of the various branches of the services, but found the Marine’s Officers Basic to be the most like what we wanted to achieve.


In all of the basic trainings, but especially in the Marine Officers Basic, we found four (4) distinct phases that clearly mirror the four academic years in high school and college.  We also saw that the Marines don’t learn leadership.  They earn leadership.


Earned Leadership

Humans have two types of personal qualities.  I say this very unscientifically.  It is just a construct of my own observation, but I think it has some accuracy.  There are qualities that we “have” and there are qualities that others attribute to us.  The qualities that we “have” are the most controllable, but the qualities that others attribute to us are the most powerful.  Leadership is one of these attributed qualities.


A person can’t make himself a leader.  Leadership is attributed.  A person can, however, make himself credible.  In fact, only he can do that.


In looking at the missing credibility attributes of our frustrated leaders, we found a four-step path to leadership.  For the sake of simplicity, we labeled them:

  1. Operations
  2. Co-operation
  3. Lead by Example
  4. Lead by Voice

These four steps have a nice academic (high school/college) fit and (conveniently) it takes nearly an entire season to “earn” each stage.  The task of your freshmen is to master operations.  Sophomores must demonstrate cooperation with the team leaders.  Juniors must “walk the walk”.  If the first three stages have been demonstrated, as seniors they will be allowed to “talk the talk”.


The first three stages build credibility.  If credibility is not built, there can be no fourth stage.  Swimmers who try to lead without credibility end up frustrated and angry at their teammates and coaches.



Now comes the hard part.  This is where each coach has to decide what each step means in his or her program.  What “operations” are critical to your program?  What do you want every swimmer to know?  That must be defined first, then once it is defined, you must determine how you will measure and track it.


Operations (freshmen) means things like:

  • What the military does in basic training (How to walk, talk, dress, eat, sleep, etc.)
  • How does your team work?
  • Practice schedule
  • Equipment (yours, others, teams)
  • Attendance
  • Traditions
  • Special policies

How will you measure them?  Attendance is easy and critical.  I have seen high school coaches use 6 weeks tests over team rules, team traditions, equipment needed, schedules, swimming rules, water polo rules, etc.


The success of the military isn’t just that it defined these stages, but that it determined exactly what every soldier, sailor or airman had to know and how that particular branch of service was going to measure it.  As coaches, if we are going to be serious about developing leaders on our teams, we must create the opportunities for them to develop these building blocks of credibility and track them, so we can know whether they are succeeding or not.


Cooperation (sophomores) was taken directly from Marine Officer’s Basic.  The other three branches of service called it “followership”.  The Marines call it cooperation.  In the Marines, where everyone is a leader, it is the followers job not only to follow the lead, but to actively cooperate and help that leader be the best possible leader in that situation.  Some examples of cooperation would be:

  • Actively support Team Leaders
  • Actively support Coach
  • Don’t undercut!
  • No backstabbing or badmouthing
  • No cliques


The Junior season is the most critical of all in developing leadership potential through credibility development.  This is where they must “walk the walk”.  This is the season of being the strong, silent type.  “Shut up and do it.”  Leading by example is shown by behaviors like:

  • First There
  • Last There
  • Lane Leadership
  • Practice Challenges
  • Out-of-pool issues (partying, drinking, taking care of themselves, academics, etc.)


Every high school, club and college coach needs good senior leadership.  The senior year is where they finally can lead by voice.  Interestingly, not everyone who has made him or herself eligible (credible) for leadership will want to assume this role.


The vocal leader stands out and by doing so makes him or herself a target.  For this reason, many credible leaders don’t want to step forward as the vocal leader.  This is especially true with the best swimmer(s) on the team.  Typically, the best swimmer already finds himself under the social microscope and is subject to many petty, adolescent jealousies.  They are understandably reluctant to volunteer for more.


Because of this dynamic, the vocal leader(s) usually comes from the ranks of the good (but not best) swimmers.  Those others who have made themselves credible, need to assume the role of “bodyguard” to the vocal leader, visibly, physically backing up their leader and friend.  This becomes especially critical if the vocal leader on a co-ed team is female.  Her leadership success will depend on a strong set of bodyguards.


Once the credible student-leader has assumed the role of vocal team leader, the coach no longer needs to monitor their progress towards leadership credibility.  Instead, the coach’s role becomes tutor and mentor to the nascent leader.  At this stage, their leadership role, in addition to their swimming, requires significant, private one-on-one coaching.  Everything from speaking to the group, to how to encourage, to group dynamics will be needed.  It is the coach’s role to accelerate the leadership learning curve so that the vocal team leader doesn’t reach peak effectiveness shortly after the end of the season.



Our coaching staff proved to be slow learners, but we were learners.  After all we had invested in trying to teach leadership, our hardest, but most valuable lesson was that leadership is not learned, but earned.


This makes the coach’s role surprisingly more difficult and critical.  Instead of merely developing a curriculum and presenting it to our swimmers, we have to clearly define for ourselves what operations are critical to our team.  We have to define, for ourselves, what forms of cooperation are critical to our team.  We have to define, for ourselves, specifically what examples we want set for our teams.


Then, we must develop systems to measure, track, record and remediate (if necessary) our swimmer’s progress in developing leadership credibility.  It must be done every day.  It takes a lot of work, but only by doing that work can we ascertain that we will maintain that “pipeline” of student-leaders who are so critical to every team’s success.





If you would forgive me for wandering slightly off topic, during the course of our research we stumbled on to some information on team captain selection that has proved valuable to our high school coaches.  I would like to pass it on to you.


Two variables in team captain selection proved to be important: when and how.  The issues on the when variable were “Do you select at the beginning of this season, or the end of the previous season?”


Teams who selected at the end of the season selected the hardest worker.  Teams who selected prior to the season selected the best party host.


Even more interesting was the recommendation on method of voting.  It was recommended that all “stakeholders” become “stockholders” by getting one vote for each season with the team (including prior summer’s training).  This way a year ‘round incoming senior would have 6 votes for team captain.  Those with the biggest stake in the team also have the most stock in the team.  That totally changes team elections.



Q:         What do you mean by “You can’t make yourself in to a leader, but       only you can make yourself credible?”


A:         Only swimmers can make themselves with other swimmers.  In the workplace, only you can make yourself credible with other people you work with. As a coach, we have an obligation to our kids to teach them how to make themselves credible, then to track the stuff.   For example, in operations, for me, the most important thing is attendance.  You’ve got to be there.  I track attendance like crazy!  Are you there?  Are you on time?  It is an important indicator for me.


Do you know the rules?  Do you know your team traditions?  That kind of stuff. Do you (the coach) track it in some way? Do you make sure they are knowing it and demonstrating it?


At the Operational level, it is pretty easy on your team to say what it is.  As you go to the higher levels, it gets harder to measure and track, but you need to!


How are you going to define cooperation with your team leaders?  Are they actively supporting their team leaders?  You need to have a way that you are tracking it and measuring it for your sophomores.  Things like: Are they going to team functions?  Both organized and non-organized is important, because you don’t want cliques. When the team goes to a movie, you want the team to go to a movie, not a clique to go to a movie.


You want to measure it in the water.  When the lane leader says, “OK, you go first. I’ll go second.” (or vice-versa) you want them to do it.  You want them to follow their team leaders.  Maybe it will happen in dryland or maybe in a team run, but you want it to happen.  You don’t want it to be left to chance.


Make sure it happens and make sure you measure it, so that you can make sure those sophomores are achieving those credibility markers with their peers.


The same goes for Leading by Example.  It’s a little bit easier here, because you know what kind of leadership you want out of them.  You can talk to them about it, but you have to measure it and monitor it.


They, the swimmers, can earn credibility, only they can earn credibility.  But only we can teach them those things that they need to do and measure and make sure that they are doing it.


Q:         Can the process be accelerated?  Does each step need to take a year?


A:         Yes.  Often it has to.  Think about a JC for example.  I don’t think steps can be skipped.  The Marines don’t take 4 years.  They take ten weeks of basic training. You have to put the steps in there and during the initial steps; you’re the drill sergeant.  You’re the leader.  You’re teaching them.  You’re making sure they go through it.  The process can be accelerated, if you need it to be.I think, however, that once you get a 4-year “pecking order”, you probably don’t want it to be accelerated.


Q:         What if your underclassmen are stronger leaders than your upperclassmen?


A:         I can only answer with a series of “ifs”.


If you have been there long enough to have followed this process for 4 years and raised a class of senior leaders, then you have to let them lead.  Maybe it’s as good as its going to get this year.  You just have to tell the underclassmen to wait their turn.  You are sort of taking a short-term loss to get to a long-term gain.


On the other hand, if you haven’t been there long enough, or if you haven’t followed this process to develop leaders, you have to accelerate the process, but you have to go through the whole process.  You have to take your team through the whole process.  In the interim time, you have to be the team’s leader.


Q:         Does this process apply to 12 and unders?


A:         No.  I was specifically speaking about high school kids and college kids.  But you can use this stuff with 12 and unders.  12 and unders are perpetually in Operations, but they are also perpetually in Rehearsal.  They can be rehearsing all these things.  They should be taking turns leading.


They can be leading a lane if they are a fast enough kicker or they can be leading putting away the lane lines if they are not.  They can lead a team run if they are fast enough.  They can lead calisthenics if they are not.  They can take turns cooperating with their leaders when it is not their turn to lead.  They should be doing all these types of things simultaneously.


12 and unders are at all levels simultaneously and rotating through them.  As a 12 and under coach, you have the advantage that they (prepubertally) can shift between roles.  After puberty, they get pretty rigid in their roles.  As 12 and unders, they can jump between these roles with great facility.  Once they get in to adolescence, you just have to keep them moving through the phases.


Q:         When you coach 12 and unders, do you move them between all 4 of the levels?


A:         I absolutely do.  I haven’t coached 12 and unders for…a long time, but when I did, I would deliberately put kids in different roles all the time.  Because we all know that when they get older, their roles will change!  When they develop their adolescent personality, they will change.  When they develop their adult personality, they will change.  So we have to expose them to all of the roles and the skills that they will need to play these roles.  We have to prepare them for what they are going to need when it really counts.  Same as swimming.


Q:         What if you have two good leaders on your team?  Specifically, what if one leader is male and the other is female, who do you let lead?


A:         Both.  Eventually, in real life, we have to be able to work independently and we have to be able to work collaboratively.  So it is important to teach them to be independent leaders and collaborative leaders.


If you have two good leaders, teach them the bodyguard rule.  The male leader, especially, needs to be able to bodyguard the female leader, because as every female in this room knows, the female leader’s worst enemies are the other females.  As soon as she steps up to that leadership role, the other females will fill her back with arrows, unless the male leader is willing to bodyguard her.


And it’s good to teach the male leaders to both work for and with female leaders and to support the female leaders, then reverse it.  I’ve found that the support roles come much more naturally to the female leaders.  It seems to be a lot more difficult for the males to learn the support roles, but a lot easier to learn the protection role.


Q:         What if you only coached females?  The situation is exactly like you described with the backstabbing and all.


A:         I have never coached only females, so I couldn’t even begin to speculate on what I would do.  From coaching only mixed male-female teams, I know that both the males and the females have to go through the same steps.  I would guess that on a female-only team, the females would go through the steps faster and would be ready and willing to undercut their leaders sooner.  You, as the coach, would have to enforce cooperation more.  That’s just a wild guess.

Q:         I have a team of 12-16 year olds.  The 12-year-olds are way ahead of my 16-year-olds on every measure.  Commitment, swimming ability, leadership.  How can my 16-year-olds be the leaders?


A:         They absolutely can’t.  Your 13 and 14 year olds will not follow them, will not cooperate with them, because the 16-year-olds have not gained their credibility.


Q:         Can I make my 12-year-olds the leaders?


A:         You can’t, because the older guys will just kill them.  You then, for a period of time, have to become the team leader, because there is going to be a leadership void on your team.


What I would encourage you to do is, first, start monitoring your 13-14s.  Get them on the path.  Then go and “dissect” some of your 15-16s and I think you will find, like we did, these “holes” in their leadership development.  Operationally, cooperationally or with their example, they haven’t done something along the way to gain the credibility of their younger teammates.  You need to know what those things are, because they are obviously important on your team and you need to make sure that your next generation does them!


You need to know them and measure them and teach them and track them so that your 14 year olds are ready to step up when it’s their turn and the next group will be ready behind them.


Q:         If you have leaders who lose their credibility and respect, how do they get it back?


A:         Sackcloth and ashes are real good.  By that I mean public repentance and public penance.


When a kid screws up publicly, whether they go out and get drunk or do something stupid, they have to crawl back publicly, they have to acknowledge what they did wrong publicly, they have to apologize to everyone publicly and personally, that includes teammates, coaches and parents.  Then they have to demonstrably re-earn the lost respect.


Public error requires public apology and public penitence, if you want to get back public leadership.  You can’t have public error and private penitence, unless you are the President of the United States.



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