Ten Ways to Coach Resonsibility and Empower Your Athletes by Teri McKeever (2005)


We just heard Coach Schubert talk about one of the things that is important for us to do for our athletes, to push them beyond their comfort zones or challenge them to go beyond their comfort zones. This is not something that I particularly enjoy – I am getting more comfortable at, but it is definitely something that challenges my comfort zone. So I ask you to keep that in mind and hopefully as we go along you will be able to get something out of this that you can use with your own program.

I picked the topic today: 10 strategies in coaching accountability or responsibility – because it is important to me. I have been a college coach my entire career. This is my 22nd year coaching and it has all been at the collegiate level, I think it is important to say that up front as I am definitely coming from it with a limited bias. Prior to being at CAL I was at Fresno State University and had an opportunity to coach both the men and the women. At CAL I am just working with a group of women and one of the things that really struck me; I am surprised by the lack of responsibility and accountability that some of these very, very elite athletes have as it relates to their swimming. It has struck me before, but really just kind of came to light from my experience at PAC-10’s this year and my experience over the last several years, having been able to be on a National staff now since the summer of 2001. I was – I don’t even know what the right word is, surprised that these athletes didn’t have a whole lot of ownership or thought process or input and I thought, how can I address that? – How do I address that in my own program? I cannot believe that this is a unique situation to the 25 women that are on the CAL team, so I thought maybe we could look at it. It is also my home that as I go and recruit someone – as I mentioned – when they are done after four or five years in our program they are going to walk out of that experience as a more complete person. Hopefully, they are going to swim well, maybe they are going to be an Olympic champion – maybe they are going to be a PAC-10 champion – maybe they are going to be the team captain – whatever it is, but I really have a passion for the fact of working with the entire person.

I didn’t think I was going to be a swimming coach. I thought I would maybe coach – not coach – teach high school – I wanted to be a math teacher in high school and I thought I would do a little bit of coaching. I come from a family of teachers. My mom was a high school teacher – I am the oldest of ten children and seven of us are teachers or in the education field so it is definitely something that has been engrained in me for quite a while.

Then, I mentioned to John Leonard this morning – I have had this experience and maybe you guys have too –something comes up in your life and all of a sudden you see articles – you see things on TV – I think it was Dateline – I am not sure, this past weekend and there was a segment on – I think they are calling it the echo generation. The children of the baby boomers that are born in 1982 and beyond, those are the people we are working with. People that tend to go out into the real world and have a sense of entitlement; they have a very high self-esteem for no apparent reason. They have been told their whole life they have done a good job.

I know in the ASCA newsletter this past year John wrote an article called “Real World Feedback”. It related to an article that was in the USA Today; I don’t know how many people have seen “Meet the Fockers”, but when they go to the Fockers and they have the 9th place trophy and the participation awards; this thing on Dateline was this young lady that apparently is a graduate – I think it was Harvard or is top of her class – so she has a line of trophies – I mean – you should get a trophy for showing up, and they do, and have gotten a trophy for showing up. I know this summer when we were in Canada Dave Salo said “hey – did you see the paper – they are not going to fail people in Canada anymore” – it is called delayed success?

I know for me personally – the times I have learned more about myself and who I am and who shapes who I am – it is because of the hard times and what I learned going through those hard times. I had a conversation with a young lady who was done with her collegiate eligibility, but still is in school and really wrestling with – should she still swim – should she not swim and all she kept saying is – I want to be happy. Finally, I just couldn’t take it anymore and I said; you are not going to be happy every day. I just don’t think that really occurs to a lot of them, that that is what they want to do so I came up with 10 strategies – I have to give my team some credit – they couldn’t get in the water last Wednesday unless they helped me with my presentation and I asked them to write down two or more things that they have done in our program or another program that has helped them with personal responsibility or accountability and I got a lot of really great things and I have tried to incorporate those into ten concepts and my intention is just to share those with you – tell you ways that we have done it or I have done it and see if maybe you can take away something that will be of benefit to you.

I am going to use the definition of responsibility. I am going to define that as the ability to respond. I think a lot of times people think responsibility is all you need – is about being mature and responsible. Today I am going to use it with the ability to respond and to respond in an appropriate way. If you are not put on that “A” relay, are you responsible enough to respond or do you have the ability to respond in an appropriate way? If you don’t make your “A” cut – do you have the ability to respond appropriately? If you just win the league championship – do you have the ability to respond appropriately to your teammates, your coach – whomever. If you win a close race, do you have the ability to respond in an appropriate fashion? So, that is our first strategy.

How many of you – just by a show of hands – have thought that you had been clear on something and oh my goodness – it turns out that nobody knew what you were talking about? Okay, well I feel a lot better because I am not alone. Think about how that turned out. Most of the time, when you say it didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to – generally that is in a negative fashion, right? Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want them to and they end up being better. But I think it is really important to be clear in your expectations and set boundaries.

The best advice anybody ever gave me was that you teach people how to treat you. I really put that into effect in not only my coaching life, but my personal life in the last couple of years. Where are the boundaries with me? I will use a cell phone as a great example; never in a million years when I started my coaching career did I know I was going to have to have a cell phone policy and go over it. Now the cell phone policy includes text messaging because – you have to be that specific. If I say it is not appropriate to talk on the cell phone in a meeting – I guarantee you unless I do– people are going to push the boundaries – they are going to be in the back of the room going like a crazy person on there cell. I also explained to them that it is a generational thing. I have a cell phone, but I don’t want to be tied to that cell phone. Don’t call me on my cell phone 24/7 – okay? You know, where they will call each other – leave messages – text message. I don’t want that thing to go off at 2 o’clock that somebody text messaged me, but on the other hand, I have to be clear then how you communicate when you do need to do something and so we went over that. I am more – I guess – traditional in that, call my office; put it on voice mail, but it is important to do that. I think, not only can you say something to people, but a lot of times you have got to have it in writing. We have a two page expectation – rules – guidelines – whatever you want to call them – we go over it – we read it every year. We ask if there are any questions and then I have everybody sign it and date it so that they know this is what is expected of you if you are part of the team.

I think with those clear expectations, need to come consequences. If it says be on time to workout – okay? Being on time to workout to me means, that we are diving in about 2-3 minutes before it was supposed to start. Being on time to some people for workout means – I am on the pool deck. I don’t know where they are coming from – what the expectation was so I think I need to be really clear on it and then I need to let them know if it is an important enough concept – that there is a consequence. What is the consequence for not being on time? Well, in the morning most people do not have class at 6 am so I am pretty confident they can get there on time and if they don’t they are not going to have the privilege of working out, okay? We workout at 1:15 in the afternoon which is a pretty tight day. If you have class until 1 you might not really be there ready to jump in at 1:13 – 1:12, so I need to be a little bit more lax – not lax, but it goes to my next thing which talks about communication.

They are going to have to communicate if they have a class. We had an activity this past week – we have a sign – Whitney Heit, my assistant, when he joined us two years ago he had this awesome sign that says “Choose your Attitude” and we had the team hit it before they walked out on the deck and then it kind of occurred to me that we didn’t talk about what that meant so when I hit “choose your attitude” that meant one thing to me – when Whitney hit it, it meant one thing to him, when Natalie hits it, it means another thing to her. What we did this year – we spent an hour talking about – what does that mean? Brainstorming on what that meant so now when each athlete hits that sign as they go out to workout or finish a workout there is a list of brainstorming things. Not only did we brainstorm, but then I wrote it back up for them so they can put it in their team notebook which some people look at, some people throw in the locker room, but at least I have given them the information and we are more on a common ground and I think that that is real important.

The next thing I think you can work on is setting high standards. I was amazed how many women on the team, when I asked for their strategies, said that this was really important – they want to know, as a teammate, that they can be counted on and it is important to set the standard high. People will rise to the occasion – they are not always going to rise to that level and it is okay to fall short, it is okay to feel disappointment. It is similar to what I opened with, that you don’t succeed every time you try something and as a program, if I have a goal of winning a national championship – well, I haven’t won a national championship yet – I can look at it as I am a failure or I’m moving in that direction and I am still going to keep that high standard and set that as my goal. I think too, that I am speaking more of a team, but if you set those high standards then the team needs to have ownership in it. You can read all the goal setting books in the world, but they need to be a part in that process and I think a lot of times – my experience has been – they will set standards that maybe are not even realistic for themselves individually or for themselves as a team and our job is to – like Mark said – you have your short term goals – you have your long term goals and then you have your dream goal. I think that is important for them as individuals – it is important as a program – it is important for us as coaches to have those types of goals.

The next thing I put down was “take the time to teach”. Like I said earlier – this is why I want to coach. This is what motivates me every day and teach – this can be in so many different ways; the concept of technique – swimming technique – teaching that and there are a million ways to do that. Again, we have seen video and you can see all the great equipment that they have now – the dart fish underwater – there is amazing technology – too bad I am not smart enough to know how to use some of it. That is what we can all take advantage of – demonstration – if you don’t have the money or the personnel to have someone videotape – have one of your athletes demonstrate. I know we have done that a lot with our team in a camp situation and what a great experience for that athlete to have that experience of, “whoa – I am demonstrating here – I am doing this really great”. You get the feedback from that and I think it is okay when you have someone demonstrate, to have two or three people demonstrate and point out the differences of those two or three demonstrations – what is good – what is bad. Really, we are going to find anybody even if you have a Natalie Coughlin in your program that does exactly what you want them to do. If we are going underwater kick I can have Natalie – I can have Helen Silver – I can have a Sherry Sy and we can pick out the good things that each of those people do so that everyone else on the team has a clear picture of what we are looking for. I am a real proponent too, of taking time to teach means that you just don’t do it at the beginning of the year. You do it every day.

Just as important as the teaching in the water, is the teaching out of the water and that can look – being a good team person – Mark talked about what that means and how to do that. I know that we did an activity last week – I had each of the returnees share with the group – what do you wish someone would have told you after your first week of college – that you wish you would have known – that just could have made your whole experience better? It was an amazing interaction of people from as much as how to study – get good sleep – take advantage of the Bay area, be open to your professors, don’t be afraid to ask questions – just a whole array of information. That was an hour that it took away from swimming technically, but I think that was an hour of teaching that is going to allow us to perform better as a team – as individuals. Skills, that I can say it as a coach or you can say it as a coach, but when your peers say it – it carries a lot more weight.

That is the other thing – the mentoring – we do a lot of mentoring in our program – ask so and so what it is like to come cross country and be homesick you know? You – Jessica Hardy just came to our program. This young lady, not completely out of nowhere, but just broke a world record and you don’t think that with that comes a lot of anxiety and not only do you have this new responsibility of being the world record holder, but you are away from home. You are getting used to new teammates. You are getting used to a new coach – what a great opportunity for her that Natalie Coughlin is right there that she can share with. I think that whether it be at that very elite level, or I have another young lady that is injured and coming again from a long way away from home – ask so and so to go for coffee and ask her how she got through it.

One of the most powerful messages I remember as a coach a couple of years ago – we had the opportunity for Mary T. Meagher to come back to campus. She was being inducted into the Bay area Hall of Fame and I asked her if she would talk to the team briefly and she was like – “What do you want me to say? I said, just share your experience or what being at CAL meant to you – just – I think it is important that they see someone that has been tremendously successful here and done it all. I was moved by her comment that she had not been on campus in 15 years and she was walking around campus and she said “I saw this park bench and I could remember on numerous occasions when I was a student athlete – sitting down there crying – thinking I am never going to make it.” We have all had that – whether it is not make it through school – not make it through the job – not make it through the day. I think it is really refreshing to have your team hear that from other sources besides yourself. That is a huge concept that we could talk a whole hour on just in itself.

The next one – be open and honest with your communication. One of my pet peeves, and I don’t know if anyone else experiences this, but how many times have you just had a kid have a horrendous swim and the teammates are right there – “good job”, okay? Good job for everything – that was not – it is okay not to say good job – good job is not the standard reply when anyone hits the wall. When it is a good job it is a good job. When it is not a good job – nice effort might be appropriate. No, I can’t just say don’t say good job – I have to, I think, coach and say something like – keep it up – nice effort – good walls, but if it wasn’t good, don’t let them think that it was good.

Again, speaking of former CAL people – we were on our training trip last year and Matt Biondi came and spoke to the team. If anyone has ever had the chance to hear Matt speak, he is an amazingly polished speaker and he gave this great presentation – for lack of a better word – it wasn’t really a presentation – it was very informal, but talk about being honest with yourself, and I talk a lot about that. I think being open and honest in your communication – the most important person to do that with is the person that you look at in the mirror. He talked about when he brushes his teeth at night – even to this day – he looks in the mirror and he asks – “did he give it his best that day?” And the way that person responds is the most important person and what he holds dear to what he is doing and I think that that is really important for them to hear.

I know, early on, as a coach, I was afraid of hurting people’s feelings and I didn’t want to say anything. I fell into – I am going to hurt their self-esteem – it is not nice or whatever – what I really learned is that it is nice to be honest and be truthful – that my role is to be honest, open, truthful in how their behavior is matching up with their actions. What is appropriate – what is not appropriate and to do that. I think that there are other ways of being honest or opening your communication. A lot of athletes, I have found, especially as they walk into our program – are not as good doing that verbally. But give them an opportunity to maybe do it in writing. I have every freshman, for at least their first semester, keep a journal and in this journal it is not about your workout it is about your water success, your dry land success, what are your outside stresses, what are your goals for the week, how much are you sleeping – just so we can develop a dialogue because they might not be comfortable coming up and saying something. I collect them at the beginning of the week. I give feedback to them – like writing – you know, you can tell I wanted to be a teacher because I will put stickers on it and stuff like that – that feeds my little thing, but it is not only good for them, it is good for me. I mean, a lot of times you don’t know that something you are doing is positively affecting that individual or the team or negatively affecting that individual or the team and I think that that can help.

I think that you also have to help them with that open and honest communication with each other. That is real hard too because they are a 20 year old, 18 year old, it is hard to be honest with your peers because you want them to like you – more than you want them to not stay out all night drinking or whatever the challenges may be. So I think that that is important. Another way of doing that is – I ask them – a couple of ways – ask them sometimes at the end of a set to rate their performance 1-10 on not only their performance – how they see – if you are doing a test set –maybe it is ten 100’s on three minutes best effort and you are recording them and at the end we might take the time to go through – I would write down 1-10 on their effort and 1-10 on their performance and then I would ask – I would go – okay, Bill – rate yourself – rate yourself – rate yourself and it gives you amazing feedback. You might have thought that someone had a six on their effort and they are out there rating themselves as a 10. You know, you have a pretty significant disconnect – you might think they had a 9 and they are giving themselves a 6 and so I think that has been real powerful in that regard.

The next one is, ask open ended questions. How many people, when someone has a less than desirable performance, dread as they walk toward you? Besides me? I think, sometimes as a coach we think that we have got to have the answers so we start talking and what I have learned is I can learn a lot more if I just start asking questions. Open ended questions – who – what – when or excuse me – who, when, what, how? You know, how did that feel? Crappy – okay, that is not honest, open, quality feedback because I can’t do a whole lot with crappy – what does crappy mean? I think you have got to get them to take responsibility in what their reply is and help them develop their own thoughts and to critique their own performance. Has anybody had an athlete that says, “this program is just not working for me?” I guess me because I am the only one – okay, I have had that. So, then when you said, well, what is not working for you? “I don’t know” – “I don’t need to do this” – well then, what do you need to do? “I don’t know – you are the coach”. Well, how do you know it is not working if you don’t know what you are supposed to be doing? I think that that is where you have to take the time, these conversations do not last five minutes.

Anything I am suggesting here is not going to make your job easier by any means, but I honestly believe it is going to make your job more rewarding. It is going to make your athlete’s experience more complete and obviously I hold it in really high regard. I also think it is not our job to fix things. A lot of times when you are asking questions, you don’t have to – I fell under the mistake of thinking well then, I have to have the answers – I am the coach – I need the answers. I don’t need the answers, I just need to gather – it is a way of gathering information so that if I don’t have the answer, maybe I can go and ask someone else who might have the answer or together, novel concept – together – we could come up with an answer that would work. The other thing is I think when you are asking these questions, is that silence is okay. I know that I fell into the trap of asking someone a question and then I would try to answer it for them because I see that they are struggling. Let them struggle with being able to articulate what the answer is. These are not always just one on one, but I think you can do this in your team setting and again, age appropriate. Basically, you are just helping them to find a way to help themselves.

The next one I have – be a problem solver. One of the things that you read about – they have all these different names for the generation of young people we are working with right now. One of the things they say happens a lot, is mom and dad fight all their battles for them. They don’t know how to problem solve on their own and come up with alternatives. What are their options individually? What are their options as a team? How do I handle it? Next time if you have a situation and you are not completely thrilled with the way your athletes handled it – give them suggestions on how to handle it better the next time.

When I was at this convention – I think it was three years ago now – I had a nice phone call – you know, the phone call you dread from home that people got into trouble and one of the things was to come back to school and not solve it for them or bail them out of it, but to give them tools so that they could problem solve for themselves. I think that this is not only with your swimming – this is, “What if you have an exam scheduled when we are supposed to be traveling?” You need to go and solve that problem yourself. What if you are out in the real world and you have a job and it is in conflict with your child’s soccer game or something – you have got to be able to come up with solutions and alternatives and solve those problems.

The next one – be consistent in your message and I think that this applies to everything – has anybody seen that program – Nanny 911?? That program is pretty fascinating and you can learn a lot of good things, by the consistency in it. If you want to be a successful swimmer – you have said it – you need to be consistent. If you want to manage and teach responsibility and have people be accountable, you need to be consistent in what you are asking them to do, so be consistent in your praise, consistent in your discipline. I think personally, this is the hardest thing for me to do – to do over a season. This is tiring – to be consistent – to do the same thing is tiring and takes effort on everyone’s part. I think it is also to be consistent – if you have an athlete that says I want to be an All American and they are demonstrating behavior that is inconsistent with what you believe an all American’s behavior should be in and out of the pool, then it is your job to point that inconsistency out to them and get them back on track. Tell them, “if your goals change that is fine. You need to communicate that to me, but if they didn’t then here is the honest open feedback that you are not getting the job done”, okay?

The next one – provide quality feedback and specific in your feedback – time appropriate feedback. If you are not happy with the way a workout goes then I think it is our job to provide feedback on that – what weren’t you happy with as a coach? And what were you happy with? Coaching is not all about – I am deviating here, but it is interesting when you do a lot of the mentoring or you have – we will work on turns and they will coach each other. It is always interesting to me that when they start coaching each other – all they are doing is picking out the things that you are doing wrong. Coaching is about enhancing the things that you are doing right. Celebrating those and working on the things that you can do better so I think too that it needs to be time appropriate. If you see something that you really like at workout don’t wait three days later to acknowledge that behavior. If you see something you don’t like, and I did this early on in my career – if somebody did something that bothered me or was inappropriate I waited – either to make sure I said it the right way which I have finally figured out there is no right way to say something – it is more about just speaking from your heart and being authentic in what your message is. I wanted to say it in the right way and I wanted to, it is okay to say it in front of other people. I think a lot of times, I am not suggesting that you scold or acknowledge or reprimand – punish – whatever the right word be – an athlete in front of the group over and over again, but I think sometimes it is okay to say, “Sally, we are starting this set over again because Sally continues to breathe off the wall”. Can somebody help Sally get that done? The next time Sally doesn’t probably breathe off the wall so I think there is appropriate to that instance. Feedback, sometimes too, is yelling – I mean I would not consider myself a yeller, but I think a good place, you know, stop it – lets do it again is appropriate.

I don’t know about you, I think women tend to do this more than men, but if – I have had women that I might have yelled at in September and they are still holding that against me in December. They are keeping score and to be honest, I didn’t even know I yelled at them – I mean – it was that insignificant to me, but to them their world had been crushed because I said, that wasn’t good enough. And I didn’t – like I have to point out to them – I didn’t say you weren’t good enough – I said that performance was not good enough and there is a difference in that and I think you have to teach them that honest, open communication is for them to listen to what you are saying – not to hear what they think you are going to say or to put their own spin on it.

I am regressing, but another way of doing that is when you are communicating a message – the best way of making sure it got there or not is – “Now, tell me what I just said?” A lot of times I might go over some things or will have somebody come in and give information – I will say – “write down the three most important things that you heard and give those to me so I can remind you”. Have them put it in their own words so you can communicate back to them in their own words. All of these things interrelate or are interrelated.

Okay – the next one – I have two more. This is #9 and 10: embrace the teaching moments and by teaching moments – I hope I don’t get in trouble for this, but you know the saying that “shit happens”, well, shit is going to happen and what are you going to do about it? I mean – things are going to happen, I talked about having to come back from ASCA three years ago and deal with it. That was a teaching moment that I still get to use today on what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. We do recruiting. We do a lot of role playing. If you want your athletes to behave a certain way in a recruiting situation then lets role play what the scenarios are and let’s talk them through so that everybody can see it. Let’s role play if your goggles break. How many people go up to the block or have seen someone go up to the block and their goggles break and they are completely flabbergasted by it? I mean, how many times have you done starts and you say, “take your mark” and you just hold them – I mean, of course it is your fault, but, now that would never happen in a meet, but it provides a teaching moment that might. What are all the different scenarios?

Teaching moments too and this goes a little bit – Mark mentioned this which is leadership – one of the things that we have done in the last couple of years and I sort of – like anything – steal things from different people that you talk to, but we have team jobs on our team. Every returnee has a team job. So we have – over the course of the time that I have been at CAL – looked at what kind of things need to get done. We need to send out at different times of the year – thank-you notes and we call that person “random acts of kindness” and she send out thank you notes – she sends out emails to motivate people –you don’t have to, but we are choosing to celebrate birthdays. We have somebody that does the birthday cakes. They do the birthday cards. We have somebody, that it is their job to work with the equipment people, to get towels washed – to get the shirts washed – there is somebody that works with academics. We have 10-11 different committees – some of them report to me – some report to Whitney – some report to both of us. We have captains, but everyone has got a role – everyone has got a job – everyone has got a responsibility. Responsibility is about knowing how to lead and how to follow and I think that that is what I have really found that this has been able to help with.

And the last one is just to stay focused on the bigger picture. Any psychology books that you read – that is the age group that are pretty self-absorbed, right? I think it is our job to give perspective of things – the big picture. How do your actions affect the team? How do the team’s actions affect the university? You are part of the team that has a rich tradition in history. You are part of – how does swimming or this life lesson or this teaching moment affect your life? How does what is going on in New Orleans affect – you know, that puts things in perspective. I can vividly remember 9/11 and we went on our retreat the next day and just watching the TV and talking about that. Our retreat that year wasn’t about setting goals for the season, it was about looking at the bigger picture and I think that that is the part that I love about swimming and why I want to be a swimming coach – I want people to win gold medals – I want them to have best times, but I want them to walk away from their experience as a swimmer and know that what I learned about myself, what I learned about other people, that I can handle anything in life – I can get up when I fall down. I know how to hold this person next to me accountable. I know how to acknowledge them when they do something good. I know how to critique them when I want them to do something better. I think that you have to have perspective and a sense of a bigger picture to do that.

In closing, I just had this little saying that someone shared with me when I was working on this, it was in a book on self-esteem, but the gentleman was asked, “why do you spend all day with your son fixing that bike when the bike shop could fix it in an hour?” and the gentleman replied, “because I am building a son – not fixing a bike” and I just think that is what we are doing. It is not about having the best freestyle, it is about building character, building people, building teams, building tradition, giving a sense of self and skills that I think are going to – you know, so there are amazing individuals that all have swimming in common as their background so that is my presentation.

I don’t know if anybody has questions – it didn’t maybe really lend itself to question, but if anyone has questions I would be happy to answer those here or in a general setting or even on the side so thank you.

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