The Art of Coaching


[Coaching is as much art as science. It is combining the two that makes a great coach. The art can be found in great coaches in every sport – even football.]

Recently, in a television interview on ESPN, Bill Parcells, the great football coach of the NY Jets, who coached the NY Giants and NE Patriots to the Superbowl, was relating a story about his early days in coaching. What provoked the story was a comment by the interviewer that he was pretty demanding and hard on his players. This was his response:

“You bet I’m hard on my players. But I think they respect me for it. I demand that they always give me their best effort and you can’t always get that by saying please and being nice. Sure I call them sissies or girls sometimes. Yes, I can be sarcastic. Yes, I lose my temper. But there is a line which I try never to cross.

I was lucky to work under some great coaches early in my career who taught me where that line was.

Years ago, I was the offensive coordinator with a pretty good college team. One season, by going over tapes, I discovered a flaw in our great rivals’ defensive system. It seemed that once or twice a game, their defense would use a certain shift that left them very vulnerable – if we were able to recognize it in time.

They didn’t do it every game, but if they did I was going to be prepared. We had a special play just in case and I had the team practice it over and over – even though there was the possibility that the situation to use it might never arise. If it did, we were going to be prepared.

Well the game came, we’re in the fourth quarter down by seven and all of a sudden I recognize the shift. I can hardly contain myself as I send in the play. This is it, we score, get two points and win. But it didn’t exactly work out that way.

Everything that you could possibly imagine went wrong. And as the players came over to the side line I lost it. I don’t remember what I said, but I was livid – in their faces. The head coach ran over, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away.

“Bill, don’t yell at the boys!” he said.

“Don’t yell at the boys? ” I shouted. “I waited a whole season to run that play. Do you know how many times we practiced that play. Two weeks, every day and the boneheads still can’t get it right.”

“How many times did you go over it?” he asked.

“Fifty times, and they still can’t get it right.” I shouted back.

“Bill, fifty times obviously wasn’t enough or it would have worked. Don’t yell at them for your mistake.”

Well the moral to the story is that as a coach, it’s your job to get the athletes to realize the vision you have for them. It’s your team and if your athletes are not swimming or playing as you envisioned they should, look in the mirror. Athlete performance is a reality check on the way you motivate, communicate, teach and relate to your players. If there is fault, the fault may lie within. I’ve always tried to remember that.

This question was partially answered in Perth when Brad Schumacher attempted to become the first athlete to win World Championship Medals in two sports at the same event – since Johnny Weissmuller won 2 Olympic Gold medals and one Bronze medal at the 1924 Olympic Games.

The decision to allow Schumacher the opportunity did not come without controversy as USS National Team Director Dennis Pursley initially refused Schumacher’s request to miss swim team training so that he could train with the water polo team. Even after Schumacher won the initial appeal to the USS Board of Directors, Pursley appealed.

“I thought my decision was in the best interest of the team,” said Pursely.

One person who supports Pursley’s point of view is Chuck Bittick, 58, of Anaheim, CA. Bittick was the last US swimmer to try to compete in both sports in the Olympics.

“When I was a kid, my hero as a kid was Bob Hughes,” said Bittick.

Hughes was the star of the 1952 and 1956 US Olympic Water Polo Teams. He was also the World Record holder in the 100 meters breast stroke and in 1956 Hughes was on both the Olympic Swimming and Water Polo Teams.

“I wanted to do what Bob did,” says Bittick. “And in 1960 my table was set. Thirty days out from the Olympic Swimming Trials I set the world record in the 200 meter backstroke and the next week I was picked for the Olympic Water Polo Team. The problem was that they didn’t swim the 200 back in the Olympics in 1960 so I had to qualify in the 100. I was confident I could do it, but I finished fifth in the Olympic Trials and went to Rome only for water polo.”

“It’s hard to let go of your dreams when you are young,” related Bittick.

In 1963, Bittick was still the world record holder in the 200 backstroke and was the American record holder in the 100 back. At the US National Swimming Championships he won the 100 and qualified for the Pan American Games swimming team – and for the water polo team.

“It didn’t work for me,” says Bittick. “First, the coaches did not cooperate with one another and I took a lot of heat from both of them. Had to go to all practices for both teams – and that took a toll. I just didn’t have the energy. While the guys from one sport were resting, I was practicing with the others. And to make matters worse, the swimming and water polo pools were on different sides of Sao Paulo.”

“This double negatively affected me in both sports,” says Bittick, who won silver medals in both sports.

“I played water polo the day before I swam and another game on the same day as I competed. To be off by only a fraction of a second can be costly. It cost me the gold medal and a chance for another as a member of the medley relay.

Ed Bartsch of Philadelphia won the gold medal, in a Pan American Games record time, beating Bittick for the first time in his life.

“Schumacher has several advantages over me,” says Bittick. “First, he’s swimming freestyle and that’s the stroke you use most in water polo.”

“Second, the coaches and his teammates seem to be supporting him. That said, I have no doubt that his performance will be affected in both sports. He’s getting less coaching, less rest and can’t focus on what he’s doing like the single sport athletes are doing. I should have learned from my experience in 1960 and Hughes’ experience in 1956,” says Bittick. “If it were up to me, I would have him choose one sport.”

“But my ego got in the way. I wouldn’t have listened to this advice and I suspect he won’t either. He’ll have to learn for himself.”

In 1964 Bittick focused exclusively on water polo. His team finished second in the Olympic Trials and under the selection process of the day, he was not selected for the Olympic Team.

“But don’t get me wrong,” says Bittick. “Swimming and water polo are great complements to each other. It made me a much stronger and tougher swimmer. But when it comes to the Olympics – you have to be focused on one sport only.”

Bob Hughes disagrees with Bittick and says his failure to medal in Melbourne in both sports had nothing to do with splitting his focus or training time. In 1956, Big Bob Hughes was a 6’7,” 230 pound physical marvel who was widely regarded as the best water polo player in the world. He was also the world record holder in the 100 meters breaststroke in an era when it was legal to swim under water as long as you could go. Hughes generally swam the entire 100 meters below the surface.

“My goal in 1956,” said Hughes, “was to upstage Johnny Weissmuller. He won a bronze in water polo and a couple of golds in swimming at the 1924 Olympics. I figured I had a shot to win golds in both sports. I went over there thinking I could do better than him.”

Water polo and swimming complement each other very well, said Hughes, and his coaches and teammates were very supportive of his efforts.

“I had very high expectations for myself,” says Hughes. “I was swimming great and the team was playing well. I really felt I could have done it, but I never got to realize what I set out to do.”

Hughes, 26 at the time and recently married, was planning on a much delayed honeymoon with his wife after the Games ended and she was scheduled to arrive the day before he was set to swim.

“When I went to get her at the airport,” recalled Hughes, “she told me she had met another man while I was off training and she was leaving me. She stayed at the airport and took the next flight back to LA.”

Hughes swam poorly, failing to qualify for the breast stroke final. In the water polo games he was “out of it” and the team finished fifth.

“I was devastated,” he said. “It’s not the kind of think you shake off overnight.”

“To this day I think I could have done what I set out to do,” says Hughes.

“The double is possible and I wish Schumacher all the best.”

As for Brad Schumacher, he came home from Perth with a gold medal for swimming in the preliminaries and the water polo team finished a disappointing seventh.

“What Perth demonstrated to me was that it is possible to swim and play water polo at the highest level, at the same time,” Schumacher said.

“While I would have liked to swim in the finals of the relay, I am generally satisfied with my swim. I’m told I missed swimming on the relay by .04 hundreds of a second. Considering that our polo team was a little flat, losing several key games by a single goal, I think I did well. I don’t think my swimming had anything to do with the polo result – it was a team effort,” said Schumacher.

“It is still my goal to do both sports in Sydney and I think my performance will improve in both as there is not the timing conflict that there was in Perth. Here I played three games before I swam and then had to sit out against Spain because I had to swim the next morning. That was very difficult. In Sydney, the program has swimming first and three days of rest before the polo competition begins so I think going for the gold in two sports there is very realistic and possible.”

“As for the suggestion that my competing in both sports would be detrimental to the swimming team, I actually think it had the opposite effect.

The water polo team came out to support the swimming team and vice versa. It brought us closer together and I think this had a positive effect. The proof is in the fact that this was the USA’s most successful world championship ever. I’m not taking credit for it, but it is hard to see me as a detriment.”

“Anything is possible with a plan and my swimming coach (and water polo assistant national team coach, John Tanner) and I had a plan for swimming that I think worked very well. There’s is no reason why it can’t work for Sydney.”

“The coaches were very supportive. I just hope that US Swimming and the US Olympic Committee continue to support me and other athletes that might have the same opportunities.”

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